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Tuesday, January 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fund for the Needy

Childhaven helps children heal from abuse, neglect

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The yelling, the swearing, the accusations and threats — little Ethan Alvarez took it all in.

And there was little relief in the quiet. With one parent holed up in one room, the kids would huddle in another, barricaded under the covers, waiting for the next outburst.

By age 3, the boy who had been a rather steady learner, slowed. His speech slurred and he reverted to needing diapers, his mother, Bonnie Alvarez, recalled. He could no longer grip a fork. He began lashing out, hitting others, biting himself.

For the sake of her three children and herself, Alvarez got out of the marriage and tried to undo the damage that had been done.

Through the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, she heard about the Therapeutic Child Care program at Childhaven, a day-care program for abused and neglected children that is supported by The Seattle Times' annual Fund For The Needy campaign.

Ethan, now 5, was enrolled about a year and a half ago, and today he is among 400 children at Childhaven who each year learn to trust adults a bit more, pay attention and be with people — basics that often don't take hold in a dysfunctional family.

"They didn't learn to trust adults to take care of them," said Vicki Nino Osby, Childhaven's associate director. "They don't have that underlying security."

When they cry, she explained, "maybe no one comes."

Most children at Childhaven's four locations in King County are referred by Child Protective Services or Child Welfare Services. Almost half are in foster care or are living with an adult other than a parent.

Childhaven, in turn, seeks to build attachments.

One of the first things visitors notice at Childhaven centers is not the crush of kids, Osby said. It's the number of adults playing with them, teaching them, counseling them: one adult to every three for the youngest children (Childhaven serves children starting at one month) and one adult to every five pre-schoolers.

In regular day-care sessions, as well as art, music, physical and occupational therapy, Childhaven kids get attention they likely never got at home. Their parents are visited at home by Childhaven staff and can participate in parenting programs.

Bonnie Alvarez said the program's structure has been crucial to Ethan's development. Routine in where he will be, how he will be treated and what behavior is expected from him has "calmed him," she said.

There are still problems, substantial ones. Ethan has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His anger surges without warning.

"All he wants is to be loved," Alvarez said. "When he can't control his temper, people push him away and he's sad. You can see it in his eyes."

Isabella, Ethan's 2-year-old sister, starts at Childhaven this month. She has copied Ethan's behavior. He hits her, hits himself and now she hits.

Depending on the services a child receives, it may cost $20,000 to $25,000 a year to serve a child at Childhaven. About 45 percent of Childhaven's funding comes from the government, more than 20 percent from United Way, and private contributions make up the rest, according to the agency.

Alvarez, who was trained as a nurse but was injured on the job, pays nothing for Childhaven's services. No parent or guardian does.

The cost of running the program is high, Osby said, but ignoring the problems of the children would cost society more over a lifetime in learning and behavioral problems.

"They get unconditional love here," Osby said. "The earlier that enters a child's life, the better."

About Fund For The Needy

No donated money is used for administrative costs, and no money or goods will be given by The Seattle Times to individuals featured in the stories. Contributions are tax-deductible. The fund is registered with the secretary of state's charities division.

Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or bkaiman@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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