An ounce of prevention for abuse
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
On a recent, sunny afternoon, 9-year-old twins Krystine and Christopher Foshay were racing their bikes up and down their dusty neighborhood street. Christopher was wet and muddy from slipping into a nearby canal, and Krystine was scratching a mysterious pink rash.
Big sister Hazel, 10, fussed over the family's new German shepherd mix puppy, Polar. And 7-year-old Joseph, affectionately called "Little Man," gravitated toward whichever sibling was doing the most interesting thing at the moment.
Their father was off working long hours in construction, so mom Teresa Soderman, 30, had her hands full.
Parent educator Patricia Johnson understands that. Once a week, she visits the family's trailer in Inverness as part of the Nurturing Program, an initiative offered by the University of Florida's Child Abuse Prevention Project. Amid the rambunctious chaos of the children, she quietly offers Soderman parenting tips, encouragement and advice.
A state agency deemed Soderman and her longtime partner, Chris Foshay, at risk of neglecting or abusing their four children. Johnson is working to make sure that doesn't happen with this family or any of the other eight she visits in Citrus County.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, but the quest against abuse is a yearlong venture for her.
"These parents want to be good parents," the family education specialist said. "They just are at a loss to deal with issues that come up."
Johnson tailors a program to meet each family's specific needs. Some young parents need to learn what can be expected of children at certain ages or how to tell if a baby is hungry. Others don't know how to handle temper tantrums or a child who has lied.
She visits the families for an hour or two at their homes, and then spends many more hours seeking services or educational material to supplement her efforts. She'll pick up diapers for a mother who can't get a ride to the store or find a lawyer willing to donate some time to a woman who can't pay for his services.
She makes the best of living in a small two-bedroom home: The boys share one room, the girls share another and their parents sleep on the sofa bed.
But during this 16-week program, Johnson, a longtime school teacher, is hoping to help Soderman craft more consistent disciplinary skills. She's showing Soderman ways to get her children to listen better and strategies for teaching them responsibility.
Last week, they tackled chores. Soderman is giving each child $1 a week if they brush their teeth, eat their meals, make their beds. Johnson wants her to create chore charts that would track their progress. If they earned a star sticker for each day of the week, then they'd get the small allowance.
She had suggested it before, but the charts hadn't been created.
"I wish you would make out the chore charts," Johnson said. "I just want you to try it."
Soderman was hesitant. She's not hooked on the idea. She'd rather wait until they find a new place to live, until they have a fresh start, she said.
Johnson persisted. She was not demanding or harsh, nor was she self-righteous. She was just one down-to-earth, experienced mother talking to another mother about something she thought worked.
"They need motivation," Johnson said. "This is part of the motivation."
Then she dropped the issue. Johnson has been a part of the Nurturing Program since 1996, and she knows when to push and when to back off.
The program is voluntary. These families are referred by various state agencies, doctors or the health department, but they don't have to accept educators like Johnson into their homes.
Those who do typically give the mentoring service glowing reviews, said program director Annie McPherson from Gainesville. Participants receive an intensive support network that works to help them before they attract serious attention from law enforcement or the Department of Children and Families, which provides the funding and contract that allows the UF group to perform this service.
And the program workers come right to their homes, a setting they are comfortable in and don't have to worry about finding transportation to get to, she said. Sumter, Marion, Levy and Hernando counties are among the other areas reached by the program.
In Citrus, Johnson effectively puts parents at ease, McPherson said.
"She is really able to work with families who have difficulties and not be judgmental," McPherson said. "If people feel better about (their family) situation, then they're going to be better parents."
In the few weeks since Johnson befriended Soderman, the surrogate grandmother has helped her family look for affordable housing options. They moved to Citrus from Massachusetts a few years ago, so Johnson also has helped Soderman learn more about the county resources available to help her.
For instance, Christopher needs an appointment with an ADHD specialist. Johnson knows just the person, but Soderman hasn't been able to figure out when they could get to an appointment. The family has only one car, which Chris Foshay drives to work.
The educator recommends calling the county transit service for a ride. Soderman couldn't even make such calls until three weeks ago, when the family got a telephone.
Johnson hoped they would take advantage of Foshay's day off Saturday to stop by a free yard sale being offered by the Family Resource Center in Hernando. At their recent visit, she brought Soderman a flier about the sale.
She also gave her a parenting tip list titled "What it takes to be a mom or dad." Its suggestions were basic: Read to your children. Keep your promises. Go for walks together. Set good examples.
In a way, setting good examples is precisely what Johnson is after. She doesn't expect a total overhaul of the families she visits. To her, success stories come from small changes. If a family rids a home of safety hazards or spends more time together or creates a daily routine with structured meals, then she feels they've made strides toward better living.
The hard part, she said, often is letting go after 16 weeks. Johnson speaks fondly of the Foshay children, doting on their striking blue eyes and bubbly personalities.
"I'm going to hate to give this family up," she said after her visit. "But I'm trying to empower (Soderman)."
Yet, in her nurturing way, Johnson packs in the advice until a visit's last minute. At last week's session, the children had a giddy energy as they inched toward a lurking alligator in the canal near their home. They've been warned to stay clear of the animal, but their curiosity was proving hard to contain.
Later, before Johnson pulled out of the driveway to leave, she cried out, "Stay away from gators!"
The mother in her just couldn't resist.
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