When Juan was small he didn’t smile.
“Now that’s the first thing you see on his face,” Celia Martinez said of her legally-adopted 5-year-old son. But the change is a work in progress.
Like most kids who are brought up in a home with domestic violence, Juan became a victim himself.
But a local nonprofit in the South County is helping these children and families cope.
Mi Escuelita Therapeutic Preschool in Chula Vista is free for children affected by family violence. South Bay Community Services opened it in June 2006 and it is the only school of its kind in Southern California, according to director of development Shirley Horton.
The school provides specialized services for 3- to 5-year-olds and their families five days a week, including parenting classes, behavioral, developmental and physical therapy services.
Many of these children come from low-income families and broken homes and are referred by local law enforcement, Child Welfare Services, emergency shelters and transitional housing programs.
Martinez, 52, has had full custody of her nephew’s children, Juan and Lindsay, 3, for two years.
She got Juan when a judge placed him on open adoption because his father was in prison and Lindsay because of her mother’s drug use.
Martinez works part-time and has four children of her own, the youngest who is 28 helps her with the kids. Martinez said caring for the children is difficult but she accepts the responsibility with open arms.
Juan had been in and out of several homes for his defiant behavior, which stems from physical and emotional abuse.
Child wellbeing department director Valerie Brew said that many children at Mi Escuelita have lacked a stable home environment and act out in aggression, which can be mimicked in their play.
“They tend to have an inability to self regulate, throw tantrums, scream and cry — run away and throw things,” she said.
Martinez said Juan has what’s called an oppositional defiant disorder, in which he often shows hostile behavior toward authority figures. He is also on medication for attention deficit disorder.
“When he first came to my house he would kick, hit and bite me,” she said. “He also would masturbate. I’m almost sure he was sexually abused because he won’t go into a restroom by himself.”
Martinez described Lindsay as a very happy girl but said she likes to imitate her brother.
Brew said kids could also become extremely shy and withdrawn from their environment.
To help change their behavior, teachers focus on pro-social behavior in small groups and individual counseling by reading books, showing videos and using puppets to talk about difficult things.
“The earlier we can intervene with children, as far as their social and emotional well being for their development, the better,” Brew said.
Brew said the program is significant because of the relevance of domestic violence in the community.
In a 12-month span, the South San Diego Region Police Department along with South Bay Community Services’ Domestic Violence Response Teams responded to more than 1,500 calls. Almost 90 percent of them in Chula Vista alone, according to the center’s 2008-2009 annual report, where nearly 2,000 children were affected.
The Chula Vista Police Department, which works with South Bay Community Services, was the first agency to create a 24/7 hotline for domestic violence issues.
“When there is a call, the police department will contact us … and a representative will share with that person the different services available to them,” Horton said. “We can provide resources that they need in a time of emergency.”
Juan graduated from Mi Escuelita and is now attending a regular elementary school close to home, but still struggles with some emotional problems. Lindsay is currently enrolled.
An evaluation of Mi Escuelita’s students found that there are above average students in the class and that 89 percent of families demonstrated improved family functioning at six months of service, according to the report.
In addition, at least 385 children have been served and more than 200 parents graduated from parenting classes.
Martinez said the staff at Mi Escuelita has been her saving grace because regular schools aren’t trained to care for kids like Juan.
“It’s very hard, but having someone to guide you in the hard times when they know what they are doing is really a blessing to me,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Funding the center receives from grants, organizations and fundraisers enables staff to offer a unique curriculum that helps children overcome trauma and master basic skills.
Each year, a fundraiser called Change Their Lives Extravaganza raises money for the victims of domestic violence and their children. To date it has raised more than $1 million.
When Juan was small he didn’t smile.