"My client was a young mom. She had two kids, a baby and a toddler," Ostheimer remembers.
It's a common story. Mom meets boyfriend. Both are unemployed. They move in together. She, as required by the state, starts job training as a condition of her collecting public assistance, but she doesn't have a babysitter. So the state pays the boyfriend to babysit. "But he doesn't have the skills, tolerance or patience" to be a caregiver, says Ostheimer. "The kid gets sick, and the boyfriend doesn't know what to do."
In most cases, no harm comes to the child. But in the wrong circumstances, watch out.
"We have 'mom's boyfriend' cases all the time," says Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Ed Hay, who leads his office's Special Assault Unit. "The general sense is that mom's boyfriend is one of the most dangerous people there is for young children. It's often an adult who hasn't bonded with the children, who has no love and affection for them, and he has an explosive reaction to the behavior of a young child."
In addition, "they have multiple histories: poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, poor childhoods, poor role models and personality disorders," says Dan Wolfley, a parent educator for the Spokane Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Center.
Still, there's some disagreement about whether men are more likely to abuse than women.
"The classic profile is that abuse comes at the hands of the boyfriend of a dysfunctional mom," says Dr. Scott Edminster, an emergency room physician at Deaconess Medical Center. "I'm not sure that's an accurate stereotype." Authorities believe the abuse that killed 4-year-old Summer Phelps came from the girl's stepmother, he says.
But Ed Hay cites statistics from the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse that show that about 75 percent of crimes against children (92 percent of sexual assaults and 68 percent of physical assaults) are committed by males. "Those numbers are controversial," says Hay. "Many people feel abuse by women is underreported. There's an asterisk next to those figures."
Sharon Ostheimer's story had a happy ending. The children weren't hurt or removed from the home, although Ostheimer determined there was enough of a threat that social workers made regular visits to the home for several months until the family was deemed stable.
Many of those cases take violent turns, and children like Summer Phelps can be seriously injured or killed.
"The question is why does this keep happening?" asks Deputy Prosecutor Kelly Fitzgerald. "CPS, law enforcement, prosecutors all wonder. We have one active child homicide case and several assaults; children were shaken, burned, bruised."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n Dan Wolfley's perfect world, "everyone would have parenting classes before and during parenthood." They would come in handy for the young men who are thrust into caregiver situations.
"Most of these guys have a 9th grade, 10th grade, 11th grade education," he says. "They have no experience reading kids' cues, no understanding of child development -- then throw in drugs and alcohol. It can all add up to a bad experience."
Many men who find themselves under the CPS magnifying glass seek out Wolfley's 12-week, small group parenting classes, taught in a little house in Spokane's West Central neighborhood.
"When they come in, I let them talk about their kids and about where they came from as a child," he says. "They'll talk forever, with emotion and honesty. This is a place where they can be safe."
Wolfley, one of the co-founders of DADS (Developing Advocacy for Dads), an affiliation of about 30 Spokane area groups that help men in the child welfare system, says many men grew up with lousy male role models, fathers who were physically or emotionally absent for long periods of time. "I have a John Wayne theory that, good and bad, men are taught never to show emotion and kindness, always show power," he says. "But John Wayne wasn't a very good role model. He was a lousy parent."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & our nights a week, men gather around a long table in a windowless room at the Partners with Families and Children office on Spokane's lower South Hill. One recent Thursday night Danny (not his real name) proudly held up the red diploma he'd earned from attending Wolfley's Engaging Fatherhood course and then he told the story about how he fathered and then lost custody of his daughter.
"I hooked up with this homeless girl and gave her a place to live," Danny began. "Then we became drug buddies, and she got pregnant."
Danny said the woman had lost five other children to Child Protective Services. He said things were looking up for awhile; both had kicked drugs and their daughter was born healthy. But he says he relapsed and their relationship occasionally became violent. "I'll take the full responsibility," he says.
CPS workers came calling, and Danny took off with his daughter, driving to Montana before he says he came to his senses and brought the little girl back. "It was very difficult," he says. "I felt like I was the victim, but I wasn't the victim. I was the problem."
That realization hit Danny as he went through intensive drug rehabilitation.
"I had to do the right thing for my daughter," he says.
He has since taken anger management and parenting classes, preparing for the day when he'll get his daughter back.
"What have I learned about being a dad?" he asks. "I learned that I have to stop and see things through her eyes. I have to remember how, when I was a child, I saw my dad. He was a huge hero of a guy, even if he was only 5-foot-5."
Several others also talked about kicking their drug habits as part of the process of regaining the right to see their kids.
Brian (not his real name) says he was hooked on meth when a neighbor called CPS on behalf of his two children (son, 9, and daughter, 5). "They said the atmosphere in our house wasn't safe," he says. "The kids didn't go without. We did a lot of things with them but not the important stuff. I hate to think they were victimized, but they were."
CPS officials removed the children from Brian's home and placed them with their grandmother while Brian went through rehab. No abuse charges were filed against him and his wife, but he was required to go through a parenting program. Now, he says, his children are happier and he'll be there for them as they grow older.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n Thursday evenings at Spokane's West Boone Head Start Center, parents bring their babies, toddlers and preschool-aged children for two hours of play and dinner. Men (fathers, grandfathers, male friends) are welcomed with open arms.
During fall and winter, "I'm surprised by how many dads come," says the center's Dena Chappell.
A month ago the center held a MAC (Men and Children) night, with adults and kids sharing science activities and mini pizzas. It was a big hit, and Chappell says another MAC night will be planned soon. "We want kids and moms to see men in a fun setting," she says.
Chappell encourages fathers to volunteer in the Head Start classrooms to learn how children develop.
"We want to help them avoid having unfair expectations of children," she says. "For example, potty training. We want to teach dads what's realistic and what's not."
At the East Central Head Start Center, Shawn Smith is a familiar face. A former meth addict who's now an honor student at Spokane Community College, Smith brings his three daughters, two school-aged and one preschool, to play. The youngest attends preschool there.
Smith spent time in prison, went through drug rehab and graduated from Dan Wolfley's parenting class. Now he and his wife are separated but sharing their girls.
"It's scary thinking back how our life didn't have any structure," Smith says. "I didn't have a night and a day. I was always up, and when I slept, I slept for a long time. I ate when I was hungry."
Smith's wife was also a meth user. Somehow the girls survived, thanks to Smith's dad, who helped to care for them while their parents sobered up.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & esearch about dads, a fairly new academic area, is hot -- "the flavor of the month," says therapist Kent Hoffman. He says money is flowing to scientists who are studying fatherhood. But getting young fathers to participate in research has been very difficult.
For a dozen years, Hoffman has worked with teen mothers at Spokane's Crosswalk downtown shelter for youth. He films their interactions with their young children and shows the videos to them.
"My first group featured 12 moms and two dads," Hoffman says. "When we showed the tape, you could hear a pin drop. Usually those kids are disengaged, but this caught their attention."
The women have been regular participants in the years since then. The young men have not.
"Three years ago, a mom at Crosswalk said her boyfriend doesn't get it about being a parent," Hoffman says. "'Can you do something for the guys?' they asked. So we created a class for 35 to 40 young men -- 12 to 15 of them dads -- but it isn't working well. It's like herding worms. These young men are street-involved, the tough guys on the block. For a young guy to show up three weeks in a row is rare."
Hoffman says scientists have learned much about why that is. Many young men never "attached," or bonded, with caring adults as infants, which kept parts of their brains from fully forming. Instead of consistency and predictability, "they have incoherence and fear," Hoffman says. "We need to aim our intervention at the disorganization in these peoples' minds. These people are so busy trying to get through the next minute, the next hour, that there's no room for empathy."
Dan Wolfley from SCAN agrees; he has more clients than he can handle. "There could be 10 of me and that still wouldn't be enough." Still, Wolfley's DADS colleagues see some signs of progress in teaching young fathers and boyfriends -- and in convincing the child welfare system of the importance of fathers in the child abuse equation.
"With each success story, we change one caseworker's opinion of dads," says Wes Littleton, a men's group leader from Parents with Families and Children. These guys are showing "men can change. They can show empathy. We're changing the world, one dad, one family at a time."
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BONDING BABIES AND DADS
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & acob Barnett has figured out the remedy for his 4-month-old daughter Zalia's stomach aches. "I rub her feet and it works," he says. "It's weird that massage can do that."
Soon after Zalia was born, friends of Barnett and his fianc & eacute; Kim Conley gave them a gift certificate for four two-and-a-half-hour massage/parenting sessions with infant massage instructor Kim Harmson.
"Massage allows parents to connect with their babies on a very deep level," says Harmson. "There's eye-to-skin contact. There's vocalization. There's looking into each other's eyes. There's reading and responding to baby's cues. It's a connection that allows both sides to see so many subtleties about each other so that later they can anticipate each other."
Harmson says massage is perfect for first-time parents who are hesitant about handling babies and how much pressure they should apply.
"She's so small and [Barnett] was scared about hurting her," says Conley. "Now he knows how to handle her and she definitely enjoys it."
When he rubs his hands together (the universal sign for massage, says Harmson), Zalia gets excited and raises her legs, awaiting his touch.
"Her favorite is the leg massage and her feet are ticklish," Barnett says.
Harmson says massage is enjoying a new surge of popularity. "There's tons of research about the benefits, about bonding and attachment," she says. "And it's a good way for a working parent to come home and de-stress."
And that's one of Jacob Barnett's favorite things about it. "It's our time together. It helps both of us to relax."
-- DOUG NADVORNICK