I get to do the fun things
by Richard Bermack
"I get to do the fun things," states Susan Wingfield-Ritter about the San Diego Repeat Offenders Prevention Program. "I get the kids on a soccer team, or get them into art classes, or get them dance lessons, or into a summer camp, or just take the kids to a museum.
"Our goal is to connect them to proactive social activities using community resources. The more connected to the support in the community, the stronger a family is. You never know what will affect a child. Maybe it will be music lessons. Maybe getting into the school band will carry the kid through middle school and keep him out of a gang. One time we got the art museum to give partial scholarships for their art classes to about 20 kids. The kids had a wonderful time. One kid got so involved in art that I think he will be a graphic artist. One kid became a volunteer at the natural history museum."
Wingfield-Ritter is in a unique pilot project, the Repeat Offenders Prevention Program, also known as Project 8%. The project targets at-risk children who have been in trouble with the juvenile justice system and provides intensive services to children and families. She works on a team with juvenile probation officers, psychologists, substance abuse counselors, and other professionals. "We can divide up the tasks and provide a combination of intensive family preservation and dependency diversion services, seeing high-risk families two or three times a week," she explains. In this Cadillac program, Wingfield-Ritter is out-stationed in a facility in East San Diego, with classrooms where teenagers can go to school in the morning and then attend drug treatment programs in the afternoon. The pilot project frees her from the high caseload and workload of normal line workers and allows her the time to provide intensive services to the children and families she serves.
"When I was a continuing worker, I felt like I was just treading water. I couldn't do real preventative work. You would dream about getting a kid into summer camp, but instead you spend all your time returning phone calls to foster parents, talking to attorneys, getting a psychological evaluation for the parents, or getting the family counseling. You don't have the time to spend on the extras, which are the real things that can shore up a family.
"I ask workers, 'Have you tried a family unity meeting?' They reply, 'Susan, are you kidding? I don't have time to sit four to six hours in a meeting, let alone do the work that will be generated from the meeting. I'm busy dealing with attorneys, with therapists, the school system, and the foster parents, who aren't sure they want to keep the kid, because the kid is acting out.' It is sad because you see some families that could really be reached and there is not the time or energy going into those families because the workers don't have the time to do it.
"I talk to workers as a union steward, and they say, 'Susan, I can't keep this up. It isn't good. I can't do my best by the kids.' I really feel for them and it is really hard for me not to feel guilty, to feel I have it easy working the special program. I'm not writing court reports, I'm not sitting in trials. And my heart goes out to other workers. Often their own families are suffering because they are working 50-hour weeks and not getting compensated for it. They are scared to even let their supervisors know how much they've got going on."