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Parent Project supports Sonoma families in crisis

Everyone knows how to raise kids, it’s been said, except the people who have them. Parenting can be a pretty tough business, even when it somehow goes well. But when a child is challenging, the job can be brutal.

Robert Smith, Sonoma City prosecutor, has seen his share of dysfunctional homes.

“One woman came to me and said, ‘My 13-year old pushed my face in the carpet and said he would kill me if I took his iPhone away.” She wanted advice, but Smith drew blanks. “All I could think to say was, ‘Don’t take his phone, I guess.’”

“I used to be totally punitive,” Smith said. “Kid gets arrested. Take his license away. Limit his options. Make him clean cat cages, or whatever. But then I began to realize there was a whole community of kids who were going to fail going that route. I suddenly realized there was a huge need for something else.” After decades of wielding the punitive big stick of prosecutorial law, Smith wondered if the time had come to speak softly.

He discovered the Parent Project, and it reversed his approach.

The Parent Project, the largest court-mandated juvenile diversion program in the country, is designed to help families who’ve been divided by challenging adolescents. The brainchild of a policeman named Bud Fry, the 30-year-old program has trained over 500,000 parents how to better manage their difficult or out-of-control children.

Fry, a beat cop from Pomona, California, recognized the impossibility of arresting his way out of the poverty, despair and drug use that drove juvenile crime, and began working with parents to understand their kids’ daily struggles, testing different methodologies and refining those that worked.

The result was a national program with measurable impact.

In Roseville, California, the police department saw a 73 percent reduction in calls-for-service from families who participated in the Parent Project.

In Minadoka, Idaho, where the Parent Project was implemented in homes, schools and the courts, the school drop-out rate fell from 17 percent to zero, and school expulsions ceased altogether, down from a previous-year high of 72.

And in East Los Angeles, a Parent Project Collaborative of 347 families saw a 50 percent reduction in recidivism for the juvenile probationers involved in the court-mandated program.

The program’s 10-week curriculum is designed to give parents concrete, concise tools to help change defiant and destructive behaviors in their children. Using the course’s behavioral interventions at home, families begin to address seemingly intractable problems like gang affiliation, substance abuse, truancy, sexual acting out, running away, family conflict, defiance and lack of basic respect. The curriculum is fluid, changing alongside societal challenges. One of its newer areas of focus, for example, is screen and media addiction.

“No matter how difficult the situation may be, we can help. ‘Little miracles’ is what we do!” reads the program’s website.

“This program is designed for parents who drive around the block at night because they don’t want to go home,” Smith said. “It gives them a toolbox for dealing with disruptive kids.”

Smith underwent 40 hours of intense training to be certified as a facilitator for the Parent Project. As point person for Sonoma Valley Youth and Family Services, he is bringing the program to Sonoma for a 10-week course beginning Jan. 23. He is passionate about the mission, and optimistic about the program’s reach. “Take a kid living in a homeless shelter, who’s a senior at a continuation school. He’s going to fail,” Smith said. “But give that kid six months, let him know you’re gonna be there for him… he cuts his hair, drops the hoodie, starts talking about college. For me, that’s pretty rewarding. It’s the small stuff.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.