OWATONNA — By the time parents are referred to the Exchange Club Center for Family Unity, something has already gone wrong.
The majority of families who receive services through the center are referred by the county. Other parents are referred by friends or attorneys, or even look up the center on their own, but in nearly every case, they’re there because they’ve been identified as at risk to abuse their children.
“Usually something has occurred by the time we work with them, and our goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” board member Annette Frank said.
The Center for Family Unity, which currently is marking National Child Abuse Prevention Month, has been working with families in Steele, Rice, Dodge and Waseca counties since 1984 to help struggling parents find healthy ways to raise their children. The national Exchange Club sponsors such centers all over the country, but this is the only one in Minnesota.
“Owatonna is lucky to have it,” said parent mentor coordinator Rachel Grunklee, one of the two employees at the Owatonna center. The rest of its work is done by volunteers.
Once a family has been referred, the center conducts an assessment to identify the problems facing the family.
“The biggest thing we provide is that we do provide that one-on-one mentoring, and we do go into the home,” Frank said.
The goal is to get as comprehensive a picture as possible.
“We see that entire environment, not just what was brought to the table. If we have a family coming in here, we only know what they tell us and that’s just one side of the story,” said Frank.
Families are then paired with mentors, volunteers from the community who can help them learn ways to handle stress and common parenting problems without losing hope or resorting to force.
To be a mentor takes training and dedication, Frank said.
“It’s really in-house, on-the-job type of training because every family is different,” she said. “We do have a curriculum, but it’s almost a shadowing for several months even before we’re able to let someone go on their own.”
The center also can send mentors to receive training from the national foundation that certifies the model the center uses. The most important thing the center tries to impress on its mentors is to act without judgment.
“You need to put all judgment and bias aside, because you’re going to walk into sometimes some of the most extreme situations you’ve ever seen, and you need to be OK with that,” Frank said.
Those situations can run the gamut — some parents who try to control their children through excessively strict rules, and others who have given up and let them run wild. In either case, mentors from the center try to help them find a better way.
“Very rarely do we have a family where they want to abuse their child. It’s just they don’t know of any other way to handle [problems],” Frank said.
“They’re only going by what they were taught when they were little,” Grunklee added.
The center handles many types of abuses, from verbal to physical to sexual, as well as neglect, which until recently wasn’t classified as abuse. The goal of the program is not just to prevent current abuse but ensure families don’t run into more problems down the road.
“We want long-term success,” Frank said. “We don’t want to have to come back into the home and start all over again because we didn’t leave them in a good position the first time, and we’ve had pretty good success for that.”
And over the years the center has been active, it has seen many changes in the types of families in need of help.
“The dynamics have definitely changed in the last 30 years we’ve been doing this,” Frank said. “Now we’re dealing with a lot of mental illness and substance abuse. I think alcoholism is the only common theme that we’ve been dealing with ... Because the family unit is changing, we have to adapt our practices accordingly.”
But no matter what struggles a family is facing, the center hopes to create a positive change for both children and parents.
“We’re dealing with not only how to parent, but how to manage your own life as an adult, because they’re modeling for their children how to behave,” Grunklee said. “You’re raising little adults. The way you react to your children, that’s how they’ll react to your grandchildren.”