Tara Currie-Martinez meets with a client.
There was the young girl struggling with the aftermath of abuse. The family living in a garage after losing their home as a result of spiraling rent. The boy having nightmares after watching horror movies with an older brother. The single mother working multiple jobs and struggling to feed her family.
Tara Currie-Martinez is a psychiatric social worker at the Family Resource Center at LEAD Elementary School in San Mateo. She is a therapist, and also a problem solver, a friendly face, an advocate, a soft shoulder, a fighter. She helps families overcome any number of struggles so students can focus on learning and teachers on teaching.
“The idea is for us to be there to give support to families who have been through something difficult,” Currie-Martinez said. “It’s a prevention program so that we can intervene early and help find solutions to problems before those problems get worse.”
Concerned that many families have no idea where to turn if they are struggling with a depressed child, poverty or traumatic events from a family illness to violence, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors has expanded the number of Family Resource Centers at local schools from 8 to 13. Funding for the expansion comes from Measure K, the countywide half-cent sales tax first approved by voters in 2012 and extended in November 2016.
“We know for a fact that a child who experiences a traumatic event or is in need of the basics in life like food and shelter but then does not receive the proper services is far more likely to end up in our juvenile justice system or our health care system,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier. "The time to provide service is now, not to wait until that child drops out of school or develops much more serious behavioral problems later in life.”
This note and art work hangs on a wall in Currie-Martinez' office, which doubles as the school's Family Resource Center.
Since 2013, the County’s Human Services Agency has opened five new Family Resource Centers in East Palo Alto, Daly City, San Mateo, South San Francisco and Pacifica with Measure A funding.
In reality, a “center” is an office or unused classroom that enables the psychiatric social worker to be flexible, adaptable and accessible to children, families and teachers. At each location, a social worker can link a family to health insurance, provide counseling to a student suffering from trauma, teach parenting classes and provide any number of other services. The center acts as a one-stop location where families can access a number of services, from emergency food assistance to counseling.
The centers are typically located in neighborhoods Silicon Valley’s tech boom has largely passed over.
“I just got another email about a family that is now homeless."
On a recent morning, Pattie Dullea, principal of LEAD Elementary, read from her school's profile: 76.8 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, 52.8 percent are English language learners and 10 percent receive special education resources.
“Families are really struggling here. We have so many families where both parents are working two and three jobs and they still have trouble paying the rent,” Dullea said. “I just got another email about a family that is now homeless. That uncertainty about whether or not a family will make the rent creates a great deal of stress and the children feel that.”
Dullea can now immediately inform Currie-Hernandez about the family's challenges so the social worker can try to get them the help they need.
Dullea estimated about one-third of families during the school year become homeless or are living with one, two or even three families under one roof. That makes it tough for a child to find a quiet place to read or complete homework or even sleep.
Teachers, Dullea said, are often the first to notice a change in a student’s behavior or if a student isn’t getting enough to eat or enough sleep. That teacher can speak with Currie-Martinez, who can work with the family to sign up for a nutrition program or plug in other services.
“The idea is not to let anyone fall through the cracks,” Dullea said. “The school is like a second home to many families. They trust the school. They don’t see Tara as a social worker. Instead, they see her as someone connected with the school who has answers and wants to help.”
18% of children experience two or more adverse events such as divorce, domestic violence, or family financial strain by the age of 18.
The number of Family Resource Centers expanded as a result of joint meetings with the San Mateo County Office of Education, local schools and the County’s Human Services Agency, Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, Probation Department and Sheriff’s Office. The goal is “to provide services and resources for children and youth who stand on the precipice of, but have not yet fallen into, special education, the Child Welfare System, or criminal activity.”
Prevention and Early Intervention
Click on the graphic above to learn more about programs and services designed to help at-risk children, adolescents, teenagers and parents.
“We saw this as a choice: we can sit back and watch our youth fail or we can provide them with the resources they need to succeed,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Carole Groom.
To gauge success, the County is using evidence-based practices to determine whether prevention and early intervention services ultimately save public funds by steering children and families away from higher-cost services such as foster care, the criminal justice system and other County programs.
At LEAD Elementary, Currie-Martinez has decorated the Family Resource Center with bright colors, flowers and art work from children. She has a sand tray and carefully selected toys and games placed just so, in the hopes of making it easier for students and their families to talk about hard topics.
On a recent afternoon, the mother of a student who was victimized shared how Currie-Martinez has helped her family cope with an appalling act. The ordeal involving police, criminal investigators and the courts left her child with mood swings, nervousness and other symptoms of trauma.
The family turned to Currie-Martinez for help that included counseling, emotional support and other steps to help the student overcome what could potentially be a life-altering event if not treated appropriately. What would she have done without Currie-Martinez?
“Believe me, I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said. “She is always an amazing support.”