San Luis Obispo County families showing signs of stress

Devastating financial pressures are leaving many county parents in chronic anxiety — and now that worry is passing to their kids, who show increasing signs of distress

ebazar@usc.edu and jlynem@thetribunenews.comSeptember 16, 2010 

Editor's note: This story is the first in a three-part series about how the economy is endangering the health of our families.

Johnny and Tammi Menezes bought their shiny new Denali SUV in 2007, when Johnny’s concrete business was humming and he couldn’t hustle fast enough to pour floors for new commercial buildings.

But by the end of that year, the leading edge of the recession began to batter the construction industry, and Johnny had to lay off 15 workers and a bookkeeper.

“We were doing really good for a lot of years,” said Johnny, 40. “I couldn’t imagine being in this position.”

Fast-forward three years. The Templeton family is three months behind on its $3,100 mortgage, has no health insurance and endures a constant barrage of phone calls from creditors.

In July, the Denali was repossessed, with one daughter’s Nintendo DS gaming device and other belongings inside.

“They were crying,” Tammi said of their girls, Karly, 10, and Madison, 7, who saw their mother get shoved out of the way by the woman who took the vehicle.

“I can’t sleep, it’s constant worry every day,’’ said Tammi, 48. “I keep saying, ‘Lord, please make this stop.’ ”

The Menezes family story is mirrored in households throughout San Luis Obispo County, which is buckling under economic pressure despite its relative affluence. At least one in 10 county residents seeking work was unemployed in July, according to the state Employment Development Department.

As the pressure on parents mounts, the stress hits their children, who are showing increasing signs of depression, anger and worry at home, at school and in the community.

Elena Chavez, family advocate for the Paso Robles school district, has seen a spike in mental health problems, aggression, drug use, kids cutting themselves on purpose and kids running away. The past year was the busiest in her 11 years on the job. “They’re feeling it. They’re trying to escape it,” she said.

People may mistake some children’s edginess or inability to concentrate as hyperactivity or bad behavior, said Sara Cress, mental health director for the Community Health Centers of the Central Coast, which operates 17 clinics across San Luis Obispo County.

But “when you actually sit down and talk with the kid, you find out that dad lost his job and they don’t know how long they’ll be able to stay in their house,” she said.

Cress and other experts say the economy’s effects on parents’ and children’s lives are varied and many:

• Children are acting up in school and at home, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and in some cases, hurting themselves.

• A growing number are suffering from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

• Officials are seeing more cases of neglect, as parents have trouble balancing parenting and job hunting.

• More children feel socially isolated because money troubles keep them from participating in sports or other extracurricular activities.

“Kids are angry at their situation. … They don’t have the new shoes, they don’t get to play soccer, they can’t bring friends home because there’s no home to bring them to,” said Laurie Morgan, director of the South County S.A.F.E. Family Resource Centers in Arroyo Grande, Nipomo and Oceano.

As families and children attempt to cope with the anxieties of their new financial reality, finding help hasn’t been easy.

In the face of the overwhelming demand for aid, the institutions that serve families — schools, county agencies, churches and nonprofits — increasingly have struggled to respond.

Like families, they are financially struggling. Budget cuts, staff reductions and drops in donations have led them to slash services, raise prices or both.

“This year was the tip of the iceberg,” said Phyllis Braiotta, who was family services director for the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County until she retired in June.

During her 25 years in social services, Braiotta said, she has never seen families under so much stress.

“Next year, and the year after that, that’s when you’re going to see programs going away,” she said. “We’re going to see more stress in families.”

Kids showing stress

Karly Menezes tries not to worry about her family’s house payment but sees her mom fret and can’t help being concerned. “I just try and stop worrying about it, but my mom keeps worrying about it,” she said.

Children are not immune to family stress.

“How parents function during a crisis is deeply absorbed by children,” said Irwin Redlener, professor of public health at Columbia University and president of the nonprofit Children’s Health Fund. “Kids really notice how their parents interact and respond.”

Mental health problems among youth, including depression, are on the rise, Cress said.

There has been a 25 percent year-over-year increase in referrals for pediatric counseling and psychiatric evaluations, she said. Because of the demand for services, the clinics increased the number of therapists this year. “I anticipate needing more,” she said.

General neglect cases also have grown, said Tracy Buckingham, assistant director of the county Department of Social Services.

General neglect is when parents’ lack of attention and supervision results in harm to their children. It now constitutes 71 percent of all confirmed abuse or neglect allegations so far this year, county statistics show.

“When parents are out looking for work, the kids are apt to get into more trouble,” Buckingham said.

With little guidance at home, children disrespect authority and mouth off to teachers, said Crystal Ontiveros, a family advocate at Flamson Middle School in Paso Robles. She works for The LINK, a nonprofit that operates family resource centers in Atascadero and San Miguel and provides services throughout the county.

“I have students who say, ‘I can’t focus because my mom lost her job or my dad’s not working, or he’s working three jobs,’ ” she said. So “they’re pretty much raising themselves.”

Once a child exhibits behavior problems and slips academically, “it’s very difficult to catch up,” Redlener said. “Now we have these children who will be carrying with them into young adulthood the emotional and academic consequences of the recession.”

Kids feel deprived

The Menezes girls haven’t shown extreme reactions to their parents’ fiscal woes, but they get down, their mother said.

“Sometimes, they’re sad a little when they see others with cute things and they can’t have that,” Tammi said.

The girls notice that the financial stress is taking a toll on their parents’ relationship. “They fight about bills a lot,” Madison said.

Karly and Madison try to make their mom feel better. “They give me a hug and say, ‘Oh Mommy, it’s going to be OK.’ They are hanging in a lot better than I am,” Tammi said.

Tap, ballet, voice and piano lessons are on hold while the family tries to find money for school clothes.

Doing without has consequences for teens, too.

“When you don’t have money, you can’t afford to play sports, you don’t go to dances or get the yearbook or get your (Associated Student Body) card,” said Robyn Shoffner, a family advocate for The LINK. “It isolates them from the community, it puts them out on the streets at night. It breeds hostility and jealousy.”

Sometimes, the strains on children aren’t about material goods.

“They have to grow up way too fast,” Morgan said. “A lot of the parents we work with try to keep things normal, but a lot of times kids get dragged into that discussion of ‘Where do we go? Do we go to the shelter? Do we stay in the car?’ Those kinds of questions.”

Trouble at school

Many children experiencing financial stress at home release their anxiety and anger at school. Educators see the signs in statistics, such as the growth in the number of homeless kids, which includes those whose families are doubling and tripling up with relatives and friends.

They also see it in student behavior.

“Some children are lethargic. Some students have become disassociated from school. They aren’t as eager to participate,” said Kathy McNamara, superintendent of Paso Robles Public Schools.

At the Atascadero Unified School District, punishments for drug and alcohol use are increasing, said Kathy Hannemann, assistant superintendent for educational services.

Last year, 61 students were suspended or recommended for expulsion for drug-related behavior, more than double the previous year, Hannemann said.

“I believe it is a manifestation of student anxiety. They’re stressed, and they’re self-medicating,” she said.

At a time when children’s needs are growing, budget cuts are hindering schools’ ability to respond.

Class sizes now are 30 to 40 percent higher than they were before 2008, said Julian Crocker, county superintendent of schools. At that time, most K-3 classes had 20 students, he said. Now, they have 30 or more. In grades 4 through 6, class sizes are in the mid-30s to 40.

Counselors’ ranks, too, have been hit, especially those who focus on student behavior, not just academic counseling, Crocker said.

“In terms of meeting the personal needs and psychological needs of students, there’s very little staff assistance for that now,” he said.

Loss of services

The county mental health department also is reducing services; it closed a Paso Robles clinic last year. The department is projecting a $600,000 cut this year.

Residents — including children — now have to show a higher level of need and more severe mental illness to get care. County mental health services range from outpatient therapy to inpatient hospitalization.

“For that typical kid, you have to get worse in order to get into our system,” said Karen Baylor, county mental health director.

She noted that it takes three to four weeks to see a psychiatrist in the county system. In prison, inmates get seen the same day, she said.

“I’ve had parents say, ‘My child had to commit a crime to get services,’ ” said Brad Sunseri, youth services division manager for county mental health.

Nonprofits aren’t immune from shrinking budgets, either.

The South County Youth Coalition, an affiliate of the S.A.F.E. centers, has watched its scholarship fund dwindle from an average of $3,000 to less than $1,000, Morgan said.

The $100 scholarships help families pay for extras such as summer camps and yearbooks.

“We’re entering the school year with less money than we’ve ever had in the scholarship fund,” Morgan said.

Getting creative

Johnny and Tammi Menezes are trying inventive ways to get back on solid economic ground. They’re growing lavender plants and plan eventually to make and sell oil and sachets. But thousands of the plants remain in containers outside their home; they don’t have enough money to prepare the soil and put in an irrigation system.

The couple have also designed a flier showcasing Johnny’s concrete work and plastered it around the North County. He already has landed several jobs, he said.

They’re not willing to compromise on their daughters’ attendance at North County Christian School and are in discussions with the school to barter services in exchange for tuition, which for two elementary students can run close to $10,000.

Tammi, a stay-at-home mom who had never set foot in a thrift store before, wants to volunteer at the school’s shop. Johnny poured concrete for a walkway at the school in July and plans to take on other projects.

The girls, too, want to remain at North County Christian. Karly said she couldn’t stand the idea of leaving her friends behind and looks forward to acting in school plays.

“The two most important things to me are school and staying in our house,” she said.

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