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Santa Rosa's Child Parent Institute helps new mothers, children through traumatic struggles

In the first year of their baby’s life, up to one in five American mothers feel an overwhelming sense of gloom, sometimes referred to as the “baby blues.”

Doubts about their parenting abilities permeate their minds. There’s feelings of anger, guilt, worry, tears, doubts, sadness, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, hopelessness, isolation, trouble focusing, lack of sleep, a sense of emptiness, and, for some, even thoughts of suicide.

To help treat postpartum depression and anxiety, the Child Parent Institute, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit organization, added a perinatal mood disorder program last year for Sonoma County mothers in need of mental health services.

“It focuses on depression and anxiety in the postpartum period, which we know is really important. It’s really common and it’s not talked about enough and it’s underserved,” said Megan Nuñez, child and family counseling services manager at the Child Parent Institute. “So we’re really trying to expand that program right now, identify those moms who need support for their postpartum depression and give them that support.”

The new program is one of several from the Child Parent Institute, an organization that supported 7,732 parents and children last year to strengthen family health and end child abuse.

Other programs include parenting classes, creative arts for children, a diaper bank, a small school for fifth through 12th graders who’ve experienced trauma and need intense counseling support, school-based therapy in the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District and a child and family counseling clinic.

“For people who have had adverse childhood experiences, we know there is a proven link to severe health problems and lower socioeconomic circumstances when they grow up and it becomes this cycle,” said Robin Bowen, executive director of the Child Parent Institute. “We can make sure every day more children are going to bed happier in their family circumstances. It makes a big difference for the community.”

The perinatal mood disorder program for mothers was added about six months ago when Child Parent Institute providers noticed parents bringing in their children for mental health services sometimes had trauma triggered by their kids’ behavior. Trauma can be intergenerational, Nuñez said.

“(Trauma) can be a barrier to parenting sometimes, so this two-generation approach lets us work with the kids and the parents so that the kid is processing their trauma and the parent is processing their trauma, too,” said Nuñez, a licensed psychologist. “Because of that, they’re less likely to go home and yell at their kid or hit their kid. They’re better able to get to a calm space to respond to their kid in a more thoughtful manner.”

The perinatal mood disorder program is home-based, so clients typically receive services from providers for an hour a week in their own homes. It’s funded by First 5 Sonoma County and two therapists in the program also accepts MediCal recipients.

Nuñez said the nonprofit focuses on trauma because it can be “so debilitating to someone’s life” and having grants to help underserved families makes a big difference in their lives and in the community. The clinic last year provided 3,594 hours of counseling. It accepts Medi-Cal, victim assistance funds from the state or income-based private pay using a sliding scale.

“When you’ve experienced a trauma it affects every aspect of your life and to be able to work through that and get back on track with your life is really important,” she said.

The Child Parent Institute was founded in 1978 and has an annual budget of about $5 million. There are about 100 employees.

Its programs utilize the strengthening families five protective factors model developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a national nonprofit that aims to create a more socially and economically just society through system reform and policy change.

The factors include parental resilience, social connections, concrete parent support, knowledge of parenting and child development and children’s social and emotional competence, all of which are woven into the Child Parent Institute’s programs.

“The mission of our organization is to essentially end child abuse and strengthen the health of our children and families and parents in our community,” said Bowen, who has been the executive director for 32 years.

There were 569 confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect in 2016, according to Sonoma County data. Nationally, nearly 700,000 children in the United States are abused annually, according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

The work at the Child Parent Institute boils down to early intervention and prevention, Nuñez said. Setting a good emotional foundation for children, particularly during their first three years of life, helps them feel worthy, and in turn “that start helps become competent, functioning adults later in life.”

“We’re almost at the ground floor working with them, so that they can have a good start, and then they can build on that good start so that they can be successful,” Nuñez said.

While parental support is a major component, programs for minors also make a difference.

The creative arts program at the Child Parent Institute includes a team of art therapists, working artists, art teachers and a performing arts troupe called Chalkboard Players. They specialize in performing arts.

“Art really does help heal the trauma that kids have experienced,” Bowen said.

Additionally, Child Parent Institute’s therapists are stationed at three Cotati-Rohnert Park middle schools and one high school.

“We work with students who have been the victim of something such as bullying or physical abuse or sexual assaults or kids who have witnessed domestic violence or some kind of community violence,” Nuñez said.

The Child Parent Institute also runs the New Directions School, which is classified as a “nonpublic” school. About 32 fifth through 12th graders are enrolled for its smaller, supportive environment. Students are referred to the school through their individualized education program in public school.

“One of the things I really love about our organization is that we’re providing such a continuum of services with different disciplines to help families and children,” Bowen said.

Donations to the Child Parent Institute can be made online at calparents.org/how-to-help.

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