ROCHESTER — For more than two decades, Ibero-American Action League has provided support to troubled families to ensure that they stay together while working on whatever issues they are facing.
For Janice Carrión, that support has included such basics as transportation to doctor appointments for herself and her four young children, as well as referrals to parenting classes and groups that provide free baby clothes and supplies.
Those referrals come from caseworker Efrain Torres, who Carrión said is there for her whenever she needs help.
"He’s been like a father figure," said Carrión, 23, who was at Ibero’s offices at 817 E. Main St. on Aug. 27. She dropped off two of her children for a back-to-school party organized by Torres that included games, lunch and receipt of backpacks filled with school supplies for 21 children whose families are enrolled in the agency’s preventive-services program. The school supplies were purchased with a $450 donation from Belen Colón, an Our Lady of the Angels parishioner, and her daughter Mercedes Vazquez Simmons, and a $100 contribution from the Latino Rochester Rotary.
The games led by Torres provided the basis for some life lessons.
"Whether you’re pulling ropes or playing sack races, teamwork will always get you further in life," he told the children. "Games are important. Cheering is important. It makes you feel good. The same thing goes for all of us. … You should always encourage each other."
The preventive-services program is part of the family-support unit, which receives cases mainly from the Monroe County Department of Human Services’ Office of Child Protective Services, said Elisa DeJesus, vice president of Ibero’s family-services division. After being referred to Ibero, the parent or child is connected with such needed services as mental-health counseling, substance-abuse or alcohol-dependency treatment, or family counseling, she added.
"It’s a program … to help with child-raising challenges and prevent children from having to be sent to foster homes," DeJesus said.
Carrión explained that the father of her two older children would call child protective services and file complaints that later were proved to be unfounded. But those calls did connect her to Ibero, which has proved to be a lifeline for her family, she added.
The emotional support she has received from Torres, one of three caseworkers in the program, has helped her during times when she felt overwhelmed and stressed, especially now that she is pregnant with her fifth child. He will remind her how important it is for the well-being of her children that she keep her anger in check, she added. That anger stems from the sexual abuse she suffered for five years at a young age, for which she received counseling prior to coming to Ibero, Carrión explained.
"He is the only one who can really calm me down," she said of Torres. "He always keeps his word. He is always helpful. He is always there."
At one point in its more than 20-year history, Ibero’s program served 110 families. Last year, 68 families received services. Whenever possible, families are connected to the agency’s own services such as nutrition, child care or youth programs through its subsidiary, the Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center, DeJesus said. The program’s $214,896 annual budget is funded solely by a grant from Monroe County’s human-services department, she said.
When a family is referred to the agency, the caseworker who is assigned will meet with the family and develop a report with a goal it would like to achieve, DeJesus explained. Many times, parents do not know of all the community resources available to them.
"It really meets the goal of keeping children with their parents," she noted.
Any number of situations can lead to the county stepping in, DeJesus said, including calls from a neighbor who thinks a child is being mistreated or from a teacher who suspects abuse upon seeing a bruise on a student, or if drugs are found in a baby’s blood or a student is repeatedly absent from school.
In the latter case, a child may miss school because the mother is depressed and cannot get out of bed to help the child get ready for school, DeJesus said. In such a situation, Ibero’s program can connect the mother to a therapist and offer support for the home situation so the child gets back to a school routine. Or if it’s a teenager who refuses to go to school, DeJesus said that Ibero can provide a connection to family therapy or to the county’s Persons in Need of Supervision (PINS) process for youths with serious behavior issues.
"The main goal is to keep children safe and secure within their immediate families and keep children out of foster homes," DeJesus added.