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The Story of “Kids First”

The History

The “Kids First” program is a project of the Orange County Welfare Coalition, Inc., a nonprofit corporation started by Attorney Gerald L. Klein and Attorney Ruth Shapin, MFT, in 1975. Through 1990, the coalition assisted individuals in obtaining governmental entitlements including social security and supplemental security disability benefits.

kids First Staff
Left to right: Robert Schuler, Gerald Klein, Sara Doudna and Ruth Shapin, along with Kids First Staff members

Recognizing the need for a program focusing on the needs of children whose parents are separated, in 1995 Attorney Klein began looking for such a program. In 1995, he learned of the “Kids Turn” program in San Francisco which dealt with families going through divorce. The coalition adopted their idea and curriculum. Sara Doudna, MFT, became the Clinical Director, expanded upon it, and “Kids First” was born.

In 1996, “Kids First” became operational. The program is held in conjunction with and at the Chapman University Psychology Department facility located at Smith Hall, Glassell and Palm Avenues in Orange, California. Susan Jester, the Chapman Community Clinic Assistant Director, supervises the participating Master’s candidates and coordinates the program for Chapman. “Kids First” is in an ongoing process of revision and enhancement of the curriculum through the experiences and suggestions of the participants, the board members, the facilitators and other supportive professionals in the community.

How the Program Works

“Kids First” is a program for the benefit of children whose parents live separately. It educates the children about the divorce process. It empowers the children by providing objective information and a safe place to share their feelings. It attempts to refocus the parents from their needs to the needs of their children.

The children are grouped into four emotionally and chronologically age appropriate workshops, ages 4–6, 7–9, 10–12 and 13–17. The children’s sessions are 90 minutes in duration for seven Saturdays with the eighth Saturday running an additional hour. Each group is staffed by a volunteer licensed mental health professional (MFT, LCSW or Psychologist) and/or a masters candidate in counseling (“trainee”) or a graduate who is gaining hours of supervised experience in the licensing process (“registered intern”).

The facilitators work from a curriculum that incorporates role playing, sharing and other interactive techniques to assist the children. By interacting with other children going through similar situations and being able to express their feelings (anger, hurt, guilt, fear, etc.) the children begin to work through the difficulties they are experiencing. It helps them to better cope with the separation and to express their feelings to their parents.

At the same time, the parent’s groups are being held. They are facilitated by a licensed professional, a registered intern and/or a Master’s degree candidate. The program is seven weeks in duration. Parents from the same family are placed in separate groups to avoid conflict and to encourage openness. All of the sessions, parent’s and children’s, are confidential.

  • “Significant Others,” Stepparents and Stepchildren are also encouraged to attend.
  • “Kids First” is a nonprofit corporation. The program is low cost.
  • “Kids First” is educational in nature and is not intended to replace therapy. It is an effective enhancement to the therapeutic process. It does not treat individual cases and legal advice is not given.

The Purpose

Through providing information, emotional support and sharing with others in the separation process, “Kids First” reduces the confusion, anxiety and conflict experienced by both children and parents. It is hoped that the parents will learn to better understand how their child(ren) are being affected by the changes in their family and how to better communicate with them to make the transition less traumatic. It is also hoped that parents will learn to better manage their own difficulties and thereby reduce conflict with their child(ren)’s other parent. In so doing, parents will be able to put the Kids First and the children will experience that shift.

The Future

So that more children will be able to benefit from “Kids First”, we will be making plans to establish the program in other locations in Orange County and to establish an “advanced” program. As suitable locations are found, more volunteers become involved and funding becomes available to support the expansion, we will be announcing the dates and locations of other programs.



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