Helping Families: Time to learn, time to vent

Local programs give moms and dads power tools for parenting

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2003

Sometimes, Jodi Rumph, mother to three children under the age of 6, just needs to complain. "In all fairness, after a week when the baby's not sleeping and the kid has a cold, and I haven't slept more than two hours in a week, I just want to go tell people about it and they can say, 'Oh, that's too bad,'" Rumph said.

So for the past three years she's been going to Parents Anonymous meetings on Tuesday afternoons. There, she and other parents sit for an hour or two and discuss parenting issues while their children are fed and cared for by child-care workers provided by Catholic Social Service.

"In all honesty, it's been a lifesaver for me and my family," Rumph said. Her 5-year-old daughter is autistic and her 3-year-old son has shown a delay in learning to talk. At the meetings, she gleans valuable insight about sifting through the bureaucracy involved in accessing government resources for her disabled children. She also has a chance to relax, and get some "adult time."

"Sometimes it can be as simple as I get to go, and I don't have to make one meal this week," Rumph said. "If you're a stay-at-home mom, an hour of adult time can be priceless."

Her family benefits too, she said, because "they get a lot less stressed-out mom."

Support such as that offered by Parents Anonymous is an essential part of preventing child abuse, an issue that enters the spotlight every April during Child Abuse Prevention Month, said Bunti Reed, network coordinator for the Alaska Child Abuse Prevention Network.

Parenting has changed in the past 50 years, said Reed.

"The idea of the extended support system - mother, father, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles helping out with raising children - isn't there anymore, and parents don't have the level of support that they used to receive from that old system," Reed said. "Children are from single-parent families and families where parents both work."

Knowing how to parent in a nontraditional environment is not instinctual, Reed said.

"We have had to realize that we need to learn to parent in a different way than we used to," she said. "One of the things that is really important is parent support and parent organizations."

Parents Anonymous, a nationwide organization of support groups, was established by a single mother and her social worker in 1969. Its first Juneau meetings were held in February 1999.

More than 100 parents per week attend the group's 10 meetings at several locations around Juneau, getting an opportunity to vent, relax and share ideas in a pressure-free environment, Reed said.

"Parents are invited to discuss being a parent in a caring, nonjudgmental manner," she said. The meetings use what Reed calls the "helper syndrome."

"When somebody comes and they feel they have something to give or share with a group, it raises self-esteem and increases a sense of belonging," she said.

Married couples attend the meetings, along with single parents, grandparents, foster parents and caretakers, Reed said. She has a disabled child and participates in a Tuesday night Parents Anonymous group for parents with disabled children "religiously."

"It provides a level of support that you don't find anywhere else," she said.

Some families need more support than Parents Anonymous offers. For them, Healthy Families Juneau, another program run by Catholic Community Service, pairs a trained family support worker with a parent or parents whose stress level is significantly higher than normal.

"There is some research that shows that parents with a high level of stress, even a parent who under normal circumstances would be a fine parent, could abuse or neglect a child," said Edy Rodewald, program manager for Healthy Families.

Parents-to-be with high stress levels - such as those who are single; without a high school education; who have a history of mental health problems, substance abuse or domestic violence; or are ambivalent about parenthood - are referred to the Healthy Families Juneau program by their health-care providers, Rodewald said.

If a parent is willing, and if there is room for them in the program - it can serve between 55 and 60 families at a time - a family support worker begins weekly visits.

"Because it's a voluntary program, it builds trust and receptivity in the parents," she said.

The support workers help parents with challenges from diaper rash and temper tantrums to finishing school and finding work.

"What seems like it should be common sense is not common sense - we have to learn it," said Tony Pearce, 21. He and his daughter, Cassandra, 2, and Cassandra's mom, Katrina Lokke, 21, have been working with Penny Schrader, a family support worker in Healthy Families, since just before Cassandra was born.

Working with Schrader has helped Lokke and Pearce develop patience.

"I don't think we understood some of the frustrations in having a kid," said Pearce.

The Healthy Families program is successful because of the commitment parents make to the program, said Schrader.

"It's the parents that are doing it," she said. "They are in essence what makes our program work."

Families can stay with the program for anywhere from three to five years, Rodewald said.

As Cassandra grows, Lokke and Pearce plan to continue their relationship with Schrader for a while, they said.

"Now she's a real person, not just a baby," Pearce said. "The more she grows, the more information changes."

• For more information about parent support programs in Juneau, contact Helen Kalk or Bunti Reed at the Alaska Child Abuse Prevention Network, 463-6180.

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