By Austin Fisher
March 9, 2016

Almost a year after losing her kids and her marriage, Cristina Mendoza is learning how to be a better parent.

But a bill being considered in the Kansas Legislature in Topeka this week means parents like Mendoza in southwest Kansas might have fewer opportunities to rebuild their families.

Russell Child Development Center could lose its Triple P Positive Parenting Program, which helps parents improve their parenting skills. Under Senate Bill 463, future tobacco settlement money meant for early childhood programs would be diverted into the state’s general fund, among other budget adjustments.

“If this program goes away, what about the parents that get their kids taken away tomorrow?” Mendoza said. “Would they have the same thing as me? They probably wouldn’t.”

RCDC receives grant money from the Children’s Initiative Fund and the Kansas Endowment for Youth funded by $57 million in annual payments from tobacco companies.

For January through June 2017, RCDC received a grant of nearly $2.4 million for its 18-county service area in southwest Kansas.

The center also received a $1 million grant for the same period to fund the services it provides in Ford County.

“We’ve been very fortunate to secure these funds for southwest Kansas, not every part of the state has these funds,” said Deanna Berry, the center’s executive director.

Before she got help, Mendoza’s three kids, aged one to four years, wouldn’t listen to her, sit still or share their toys. Her oldest, Eragon, has developmental delays.

The kids were taken away from their home in Garden City on May 29, 2015, and put into protective custody.

Mendoza and her husband got divorced last August. He has a restraining order on her, so they no longer speak and she now lives in Dodge City.

Like her parents before her, Mendoza hit the older children when they misbehaved on a few occasions.

“My ex-husband would lock them in a room on purpose and he wouldn’t get up to feed them or take care of them,” she said.

“She had a lot of things to work on,” said Jennifer Doll, a coach in the Triple P Positive Parenting Program at Russell Child Development Center.

In a recent observational visit, Doll saw Mendoza on the floor playing with the kids, talking with them, and giving physical affection.

“I have seen a huge change in her,” Doll said.

Sen. Larry Powell, who sits on the Senate Ways and Means committee which heard the bill on Tuesday, could not be reached for comment.

In 2015, more than 4,000 children in 19 counties took part in RCDC’s programs, according to Berry.

After becoming wards of the state, Mendoza’s kids went into three separate foster homes. Six months later, they ended up with Mendoza’s mother in Dodge City, where they still live.

Mendoza sees them every other weekend, during two-hour long visits at Mendoza’s home in Dodge City and the St. Francis Community Services office in Garden City.

During the visits, the family goes to playgrounds, plays at home, or learns about colors, numbers and words. The kids are learning Spanish and English.

“Jennifer and I go through the basics, how to understand a child’s behavior, how to get them to control themselves,” Mendoza said.

With Doll’s help, she has learned to talk and interact with her kids.

“Now hitting my kids doesn’t even seem worth it at all,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza told Doll she might never have lost her kids if she would have had the training ahead of time.

RCDC is one of a few agencies offering services that allow parents to take court-ordered parenting classes in order to reunite with their children, Berry said.

In April, the visits will become three hours long, and the kids will start to visit Mendoza’s home weekly.

“I never thought I could be this mother,” Mendoza said. “If not for the parenting classes, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

Read more from the Garden City Telegram.