Valley Family Center: Transforming lives, reuniting families
The receptionist was greeting families coming in for one-on-one counseling with marriage/family therapists and nodding to the teenagers heading for their upstairs talk therapy support group for youth victims of domestic violence.
Later, in the center’s opposite upstairs wing in a remodeled bank building accessed by an enclosed overhead bridge, about 30 men would gather for another of their two-hour weekly, 52-session anger management classes for domestic violence offenders.
Though many of these men have done jail time for perpetrating domestic violence against their wives, girlfriends, mothers or others, and some are members of gangs, there has never been an incidence of violence at the center since its inception 30 years ago in a small, long-outgrown office at Santa Rosa Church in San Fernando.
The reason, says Religious Sister of Charity Carmel Somers, executive director, is that long-time clients attending for domestic violence incidents value the respect and support offered to them and, in turn, help defuse tense situations in the group counseling sessions.
While some perpetrators are initially angry at having to attend VFC for the year-long, court-mandated anger management program --- one of the largest offered in the Valley with 11 separate groups --- by the time they have “graduated,” they generally acknowledge they have received valuable coping skills and alternatives to destructive behavior.
“The transformation we see each and every day in our clients is remarkable,” said Sister Somers. “Despite the incredible challenges they face daily, they have taken the first, and often most difficult step of seeking help.”
Last year, 3,167 individual clients were served, including a few who traveled from Nevada and Arizona. Over 75,000 hours of service were provided to the community in 2010, focused on breaking the cycle of domestic violence through support groups, counseling and case management and providing educational services such as tutoring and parent education classes.
“The need is incredible, way more than when we started,” said Sister Somers. She noted the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case --- where the athlete was on trial for the deaths of his ex-wife and a friend, ending in a controversial acquittal verdict after nine months --- seemed to touch a cultural conscience nerve.
“The issue of domestic violence moved front and center stage during the O.J. Simpson case,” said the VFC executive director. “We were in a very good location near the San Fernando Court to provide services and that’s one of the reasons we had to expand because the programs grew so much,” serving a steady increase in clients from below 1,000 people in the early ’90s to more than 3,000 men, women and children annually.
“I have clients who pretty much spend the whole week here, from receiving individual counseling, to attending support groups to bringing their children for services,” said Isabel Quiros, a marriage family therapy trainee assisting in the Spanish-speaking women’s Thursday night victims of domestic violence 26-week program.
“There’s so much growth in the domestic violence group,” said Quiros. “The women come in helpless, full of pain and depressed. Through psycho-education and informing them about the cycle of violence, they start to understand that abuse can also be verbal, emotional or psychological whereas before they only thought abuse was physical. They start to become educated and through that education they become empowered.”
Mexican-born Carlos Ortiz, who attended a VFC anger management program 16 years ago and now facilitates two Spanish-speaking men’s anger management groups with attendees from the U.S. and immigrants from Mexico and several Central and South American countries, says changing behavior often involves changing attitudes set in place at an early age.
“We grow up in the family [of origin] where the big boss is the father and women don’t have too much opportunity in our communities, and they [learn their role] is to take care of the babies, take care of the home, take care of the men and [if men are abusive] not to say anything.”
In his class, Ortiz stresses that this unequal relationship between a man and a woman is not good, that a couple should work together as “partners.” He tells attendees to “put on the thinking hat” before engaging in abusive acts where they can be restrained for a year or longer from seeing their families, put in jail and even, if they are undocumented and charged with a felony, deported.
Newly released research by the Applied Research Center (ARC), offering national data on children in foster care whose parents have been detained/deported, shows more than 5,000 are in foster care today, with another 15,000 projected in the next five years. In Los Angeles County alone, ARC estimates that there are over 1,000 children in foster care with a detained or deported parent.
Ortiz has heard many times from graduates attending the anger management program: “Thanks to the center, I’ve recovered my family and now I’ve got a lot of respect for my wife, my kids and my family.” VFC statistics show that 90 percent of the domestic violence perpetrators at VFC, which also include women, are able to fulfill court-mandated requirements to recover their families.
“We have a very high success rate, but because of the nature of the work, it can’t be that public,” said Sister Somers. “It’s a hidden ministry in a way but very necessary.”
That “hidden” aspect in a down economy has hurt VFC, reeling from a trifecta of financial challenges that came to a head this summer.
“It happened very suddenly this June, as clients have less in the summer to pay even the sliding scale fees for services accounting for 29 percent of the budget,” said Sister Somers. And, she noted, increased joblessness and homelessness among clients has raised demand for services.
Complicating the drop in client fees, reimbursement from the state’s Victim of Crime Fund has gotten slower and slower, with $42,000 currently owed from Sacramento.
“That will come in whimsically,” said Irish-born Sister Somers in a melodic brogue tinged with concern for the future of VFC, strapped with a $15,000 monthly payment on the remaining $2.2 million deficit from the 2007 building expansion (which ballooned from $3.6 million to $5.8 million due to skyrocketing costs of wood and steel). Just making payroll is now a struggle, even though Sister Somers hasn’t taken a salary for a while and staff members are all taking cuts in pay and benefits.
A long-term solution would be to find a buyer for the building who would lease space back to the center. “Then we could pay off the mortgage and be able to put in some operating money back in the bank and then revisit how we do all these other programs,” said Sister Somers.
“If we could raise $100,000 now,” she added, “it would give us the space and time to work out where we go from here.”
After seeing so many people’s lives transformed and families reunited, Sister Somers says it would be detrimental to the greater community if VFC had to close.
“The more we can help people live at peace,” said Sister Somers, “the better it is for the community and the next generation of children who realize they don’t have to go into their adult lives as violent people.”
Sister Somers is happy to conduct tours of Valley Family Center to people interested in its transformational work. The center is located at 302 S. Brand Blvd, San Fernando; (818) 365-8588. For more information or to donate online, log on to www.valleyfamilycenter.org.