Foster care success story: out of chaos arises a happy home. Michael and Samantha learn how to make their family work

The fifth-floor apartment of Samantha and Michael in North Philadelphia's rugged Raymond Rosen housing project looks like the home of an average, loving couple for whom money is a frequent challenge. A bright blue cloth covers the sofa, near the formica dining table with its three venerable chairs. Possessions are modest, but everthing is neat and clean. Their two little children are joyous and immaculate, and the parents respond to them with joy, not frustration.

But Samantha and Michael are not average. In the past 2 years they have made extraordinary progress from chaos and dependency to order and self-sufficiency.

Although their case is exceptional, it shows what skilled social welfare help and their own determination can achieve. For Samantha and Michael, anger has turned to serenity, and discouragement has yielded to confidence.

From the prospect that all their children would wind up in foster care has come the certainty that their two youngest will remain with them - and the possibility that they soon could regain custody of the three eldest, her two and his one, now in foster care.

``I came a long way with SCAN,'' Samantha gratefully acknowledges, referring to Philadelphia's nationally known social welfare agency. The Supportive Child and Adult Network provides help to families in danger of having their children put in foster care.

``These two people have come a tremendous way,'' concurs Marcy Witherspoon, their social worker for the two years that they have required SCAN's help.

Their future looked gloomy when Mrs. Witherspoon first met them in October 1984. The two, who were not married, quarreled frequently and violently, lived in a rundown apartment, and were not doing well as parents. The last straw had come when Samantha took her son to a hospital, and the toddler was found to be legally drunk, apparently from helping himself to a glass of beer left unattended.

At that point Samantha and Michael began to get the intensive aid from SCAN that they required. Like many poor parents they needed assistance in two directions: solving concrete problems, such as obtaining a better apartment; and remedying intangible, more basic difficulties - raising self-esteem, curbing his drinking, discovering how to disagree without violence, and learning to be good parents.

SCAN began to apply its help, which director E.Peter Wilson, a pediatrician, says ``flies in the face of conventional treatment.'' First, win their confidence. Next, temporarily make them feel dependent on Mrs. Witherspoon, a bright and caring young woman with a master's degree in social work, so that she can teach them and be a role model. Finally, gradually withdraw her services and those of SCAN so that the couple can regain independence.

SCAN's mission is what so many groups find elusive: to break the cycle of child abuse and neglect, too often passed from grandmother to mother to child. Ending this pattern is as difficult as breaking the cycle of poverty and dependence among longtime welfare recipients; the two cycles can be related.

``We like to demonstrate,'' Dr. Wilson says, ``that the best approach to child abuse or neglect is a multidisciplinary one,'' a combination of social work and legal, mental-health, and physical-health assistance. SCAN taps experts in all these fields.

The lynchpin of such an effort is the social worker, the contact point between the needy family and help. At first Witherspoon worked many hours a week with Samantha and Michael, then less frequently as the couple caught on.

She taught the couple skills for daily existence, from dealing with landlords to controlling their tempers, to caring for their children's physical and emotional needs.

Witherspoon, the mother of a young child, became a role model for Samantha and Michael, showing them how to parent, from feeding their youngsters to relating to them.

Often, she says, ``you're relating as a surrogate parent'' to two generations, not only the children but their young parents, whose own parents may have been poor role models.

By last October the couple was doing so well that they no longer required SCAN's aid.

Samantha and Michael have plans for the future. In a few weeks, after completing recuperation from an accident, Michael will seek work as a carpenter.

This summer Samantha, who left school after Grade 10, will take a test to obtain her high school equivalency certificate. The couple has a court hearing in June on Samantha's request to regain custody of her two oldest children.

Samantha and Michael have renewed their faith in God and joined a local church.

One Sunday last month Samantha put her family's last $2 in the collection; to her surprise, after church the minister privately handed her an envelope with $50 for food and other expenses.

Samantha is now informally aiding young women whose lives are in chaos as hers once was. ``I'm counseling a whole lot of people,'' she says proudly. ``I say: `Look at me. Look at what I've been through.'''

She tells them ``not to drink or mess up'' and insists that since she has made it through difficult times they can, too.

May 2 Samantha and Michael have special plans, unusual for SCAN's mostly minority clients, which are proof of how far they have progressed. What they will do that day will provide them with the final element of what they have been working toward: the stability of a nuclear, two-parent family.

On May 2 Samantha and Michael will be married.

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