New America Media, News report, Vivian Po
Last summer, Silvana Casalegno started noticing that an increasing number of children in her preschool were engaging in aggressive behaviors or isolating themselves. She is program director at the Mothers’ Club Family Learning Center, an early childhood learning facility and family resources center in Pasadena. Most of children who are enrolled are from low-income Latino immigrant families.
Four-year-old Camila is one of the children who worried Casalegno. She was showing signs of moodiness and preferred being alone.
“This was not her pattern before. She was very social. She was willing to engage with other children,” said Casalegno. She noticed Camila would sometimes refuse to have breakfast with the other kids, preferring to play by herself during activity time, and when a child joined, she would get upset.
Casalegno and her staff decided to intervene immediately by reaching out to Camila’s mother, Dolores Cisneros. Casalegno soon discovered that Dolores’ younger sister, Carmen, and her daughter, Rachelle, 3, moved into Dolores’ home about two years ago after Carmen was laid off from her job.
Cisneros, along with her husband and five children, live in a small two-bedroom house in Altadena, Calif. With the addition of Carmen and Rachelle, nine people are now living crowded together, with two of Cisneros’ sons sleeping on the sofas, and Carmen and Rachelle staying in the garage.
Since then, tensions and conflicts began to build between the two families under the same roof, especially between the young children. Rachelle has not only become Camila’s closest playmate, she is also her greatest competitor for Cisneros' attention.
“Camila is being jealous. She would cry and say ‘I don’t want you, you don’t love me,’” said Cisneros, who now takes care of Rachelle whenever Carmen goes to work. Carmen works a 12-hour shift at a local gas station three nights a week, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. During those nights, Camila shows more uneasiness because Cisneros needs to spend more time with Rachelle than with her.
Cisneros also received frequent complaints from her other children, but her home condition is unlikely to change anytime soon. They are paying $1,000 rent every month. Cisneros is a newspaper deliverer and her husband is a party supplies deliverer. Together, they earn only $600 per week because their hours were cut in half because of the recession. She said, without Carmen’s $400 monthly contribution, neither family would be able to make ends meet.
Overcrowded living conditions, with relatives doubled up and sharing housing in cramped conditions, is one effect of the current economic recession that has raised unemployment and housing loss, just as happened with Cisneros' sister and her family. In Los Angeles County, the official unemployment rate has jumped to 12.3 percent from 10.5 percent the same time last year. Cisneros knows many Latino families who are living under similar condition, with some of them crammed into smaller homes than theirs.
“There is about a 50 percent increase on our waiting list in the past year,” said John Horn, director of the Valley Shelter, a transitional living shelter in Los Angeles. He said there are currently 300 families on the shelter waiting list and many of them are currently living with another family. According to the Los Angeles Family Housing, a nonprofit service provider, there are approximately 372,000 overcrowded units in Los Angeles (more than one person per room), with 102,000 units defined as severely overcrowded (more than 1.5 persons per room).
Casalegno's families are evidence of the problem. She said about one third of the 100 families the Mother's Club serves are living in homes with dual or multiple families.
Ana Gallegos, children’s program director at the Mothers’ Club, said they are concerned with the trend and are closely monitoring their children’s behavior. Gallegos holds weekly meetings with Casalegno and all the preschool teachers to get updates on both children and parents. If there are any changes identified, they discuss possible interventions, such as special attention or one-on-one playtime for the kids.
Gallegos explained that children need their personal space to learn but when the space is being invaded, children may shut down communication or engage in aggressive behaviors. Both behaviors would make the learning process less effective, and if symptoms are ignored, they could develop into more severe psychological or emotional conditions where referral services are needed. Children living in these homes are often confused. Gallegos said another problem is that every family has its own set of rules and when a new family moves in, a new set of rules will be introduced. As a result, children living in these homes are overwhelmed by diverse instructions, sometimes conflicting, given by different adults. Confusion can also lead to a change in behavioral pattern.
“That’s why it is so important to keep our children in preschools,” said Celia C. Ayala, chief operating officer of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, who has been a longtime advocate for increasing access to high quality preschool.
Ayala said children experiencing crises in their home environments find security in the consistency provided by the preschool settings. Preschool also provides a stable environment for interaction, quality playtime and language development, which helps children express their feelings.
Ayala knows there are Latino parents that consider ending their children’s preschool education to reduce expenses, but she reminded parents that their children’s social and emotional health should not be traded off, especially if they are living in multiple family homes.
Lucia Diaz, chief executive officer of Mar Vista Family Center, a preschool in Culver City, has long recognized the problem of multiple family homes. She believes having parent participation is important because if parents are generating negative feelings at home, their children will be directly impacted.
Cisneros said she felt guilty being unable to provide a better living environment for her children, and when her children are being inconsiderate, she would become depressed and sometimes get into arguments with them. Now, once a week, Dolores would take Camila and her younger children to a neighborhood recreation center to learn Latin American folk dance or soccer, in order to spend some quality time together outside their overcrowded home.
Both Mar Vista and Mothers’ Club offer parent support groups, counseling services, parental skills workshops, and other referral services, to help resolve the kinds of stresses Cisneros faces. Both organizations are also partnering with local schools to provide English language courses and job trainings to help parents find better-paid jobs to support their families.
Casalegno is working with the parents to lessen the impact on the children. "We work as mediator," said Casalegno, who helps families living together to establish a set of home rules to ensure consistency in the household. Parents should be more vocal in defending their needs and their children's needs, she said, as well as bearing the responsibility to ensure quality family time are still observed even though the home environment has changed.
“We want our families to get as much help as they can because it is the future generation that they are raising,” said Casalegno.