Family service centers gain momentum

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's 10 years old, has its roots in the Settlement House movement, self-help groups, and PTAs, but chances are you've never heard of it. It's the nationwide effort to set up community-based centers and services designed, specifically, to help shore up the nation's 63 million families. In the mid '70s, a few of these family-oriented centers began springing up; today, there's a fairly healthy crop of them.

The Family Resource Coalition, which counsels and encourages a network of more than 2,000 such services, began with 50 member-groups in 1983. The purpose of all the programs, coalition president Bernice Weissbourd states, is to respond to the changes that batter and sometimes erode today's families. Changes like the increasing number of children living in poverty in the US and the emerging new roles for men and women within families as employment patterns shift.

The family scene is in flux, Mrs. Weissbourd points out. ``I recently saw a job application listing seven different statuses of marriage - including living together,'' she observed during a recent phone interview. Family programs attempt to soften the impact of change with what Weissbourd calls an ``amazing new understanding of infant development and an awareness of the importance of those early years'' and a ``different approach toward parents.''

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Explaining that approach, she says, ``We used to just see them as people we were going to teach; now we see development as a lifelong process, with parenthood as a significant phase in that development.''

Members of the coalition include everything from information and referral units on day care to teen pregnancy programs to immigration resettlement centers. They strive to provide ``preventive care and nurture families' ability to solve their own problems. If kids can get into school able, interested, and motivated to learn, they won't be a problem down the road,'' says Weissbourd. ``It sounds so self-evident, but we're not as a nation focusing on this kind of prevention. We have a unique ability to mobilize in a crisis, but not to do the kind of long-term preventive work that's needed.''

This is the kind of care the neighborhood and extended family traditionally provided new parents, Weissbourd says. ``We've always had a sense of community in the US,'' she maintains. ``There's never been a time when people have had to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, despite all the political rhetoric to the countrary.''

As families and communities have found themselves less able to respond to the pressing needs of new parents, the US evolved a complex system of social workers to fill the gap. But family resource centers, Weissbourd insists, are something else. They work to discover ``what each family has going for it, like its ethnic identity, good neighbors, or a good relationship within the family,'' and build on that, rather than center on family problems.

The centers she's helped to found ``have no set curriculum - that's worked out with the community,'' she says. But they are grounded in the assumption that child development follows certain patterns and knowing those patterns will help parents better care for their children. ``Parents have the love,'' she explains, ``which we help to expand with knowledge.''

Individual programs are tailored to the communities they serve, she explains. She points to 10 in the Chicago area that she helped found under the umbrella organization Family Focus, serving teen-age parents. ``And their friends,'' she quickly adds. ``We didn't want them thinking they'd have to be pregnant to get in.'' New Hispanic and European immigrants and Yuppie mothers are also served. ``Parenting is the great equalizer,'' she says. ``You find that the woman with the third grade education has something to teach the MBA mother.''

The Family Focus centers typically have two rooms - one for child care, the other for parent care. Mothers (or fathers) can leave their children in the child care room (or go in there to play with them), and use the parent care room to take a nap, pay bills, or just get a little time off. Parents can also discuss her concerns with the staff.

Services are built around this frame of support, which can be adapted to a community's needs. Teen-age parenting programs may include child development classes, career counseling, and a Big Sister-type program linking new mothersand experienced ones, for instance. Programs aimed at new immigrants may include legal services and programs aimed at familiarizing their clients with their new country.

A related story, on how one center in Washington aids immigrant families from Central America, will appear next week.

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