It’s April 1999. Rochelle Rowe is at work when she gets the call. Her son has just been arrested and his wife is already in jail. Listed as an emergency contact, she finds herself being asked if she’d be willing take custody of her granddaughter, who is one week away from her fourth birthday. She didn’t hesitate in her reply — this was family after all — but what began as a temporary arrangement evolved into something much more.

Twelve years later, and now the legal guardian of her granddaughter, she reflects on those initial weeks. She recalls how difficult it was, not only to cope with the emotional strain but also finding the guidance they both needed. “At this time, there were very little resources and very little respect for people in my situation. We were often treated as if we were begging for help,” said the 56-year-old grandmother. Like others in similar situations, she struggled to reconcile her former state of being with her new circumstances.

picSince her move to Ventura three years ago, Rowe and her husband have become two of the estimated 5,000 grandparents in the county who have custody of their grandchildren. According to the Child Welfare Case Management Report, 363 children in the county were removed from their homes last year, and more than 40 percent of them were placed with relatives or family friends.

One of the major struggles these kinship families face starting out is discerning the proper steps to take in the process of becoming primary caregivers. Fortunately, Rowe’s move connected her with a program that offered a level of understanding and support, which was hard to come by in the past. Kids and Families Together is a nonprofit organization servicing all of Ventura County. From a unique standpoint, it offers fundamental resources for the kinship, foster and adoptive families in the area.

For Rowe and countless others, the organization has proved to be a valuable resource of support. “This program gives us hope when we feel discouraged. It reminds us of that light inside that made us take in the child in the first place,” she said.   

Founded in January of 2000 by husband-and-wife team Faith and David Friedlander, Kids and Families Together is the designated kinship program in Ventura County. “We weren’t out to compete with the other programs. We were focused on trying to fill the gaps we saw in the welfare services in the area,” said David. “What we really want to do is keep good, healthy placements for these children who need that stability.”

For the past 11 years, they have been working to improve the quality of the relationships between children and their caregivers. Faith — the site’s clinical director — described what a huge commitment and responsibility these caregivers face.

“What does it mean to become a therapeutic parent? That’s the bottom line of what is being asked of these people,” she said. It’s a role that entails much more than caring for and loving these children. It involves transforming and relearning how to interact and guide children who are experiencing profound anger, loss or grief, Faith said.

This is the only program in the area with a strong attachment focus. The chief concern is strengthening and repairing the emotional attachments that have been damaged as a result of a relational collapse — typically with the birth parents.

“Most of these children have had a lot of early trauma because of abuse, neglect or exposure to drugs and alcohol. So they learn very early not to trust in their environment,” Faith explained. It’s one of the most challenging issues caregivers are confronted with. “A lot of these people go in thinking, all I have to do is love them, but these kids can’t return this love,” she said.

For this reason, Kids and Families offers several counseling services such as Theraplay ® and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. At their most basic, these forms of therapy work to repair the damage that occurs when the primary care source for these children has faltered or failed. Beyond this, they work to enhance self-esteem, trust in others, and joyful engagement. With a recent $132,000 grant from the Ventura County Behavioral Health department, Kids and Families Together will be able to expand its kinship community coalition and offer more outreach for families in need.

Dianne Nicholas, clinical program director, stresses the importance of healthy emotional connections. “We work to enhance attachment, a positive sense of self, and a joy for others.” A focal point of these therapy sessions is to “replicate natural healthy interaction” between child and caregiver. “Our goal is to get the caregivers to look beneath the behavioral issues, to get at the child’s narrative, to understand the child’s sense of self,” she explained.  This is an essential process that was never identified for Rowe, whose granddaughter struggled with behavioral issues throughout her adolescence.

“They help you understand that your children are often very detached emotionally because it becomes a part of their survival. This is something that no one told me before Kids and Families,” Rowe recalled.

Kids and Families also provides invaluable assistance to caregivers through in-home education and therapy sessions, and support groups. In order to help the children on an individual level, it is imperative to work with each member of the family unit. “That’s what I think our center does — authenticate the place and experiences of these caregivers. When they feel more understood, they in turn can begin to understand their children,” said current Kids and Families mentor Judy Nash-Wade.

Aided by dedicated staff and volunteers, David and Faith have established a compassionate refuge for individuals who have come together to help each other, while reshaping the notion of family. “To me, there is nothing more important than the future of these children and families,” Faith said.  

Kids and Families is hosting its third annual Kinship Family Fun Day on May 22 at El Sueño Equestrian Center in Somis. Those raising children of relatives or friends are invited to enjoy a free day of fun, food and relaxation. For more information on the event, on Kids and Families Together, or to make a donation, call 643-1446 or visit www.kidsandfamilies.org.

calexandrac@yahoo.com