PCDA Consolidates Care for Children and Families

An idea began to swirl in the mind of developmental pediatrician Dr. Diane Cullinane during the mid-1990s, after she had spent the early part of her career working in what she describes as “big bureaucracies.” Her experience at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Eastern Los Angeles Regional Center offered important insight into the care of children with disabilities, but she always felt that there were limitations.
“At some point, I decided the best thing to do would be to create that kind of a clinic where families could come and where I could take all the things that I’d learned at these different experiences and put them into practice,” said Cullinane.
So that’s precisely what she did, leaving her post at the regional center with another colleague to become executive director of an independent venture known as Professional Child Development Associates. Comprised of therapists, psychologists, pathologists and dieticians, the Pasadena nonprofit housed in a facility on Lake Avenue provides developmental evaluation, consultation and intervention services for children and their families.
“We came from a clinical background, so we knew what we wanted to provide clinically,” said Cullinane, referring to PCDA co-founder Mimi Winer. “That was the easy part. That was the fun part. It gave us so much freedom so that other professionals who shared that same vision of what quality meant gravitated together. They still gravitate toward us.”
From humble beginnings in a small house on Boston Court, then a slightly bigger one on Hudson Avenue, PCDA today employs 85 staff members who serve children from birth to 21, including those with a diagnosis of autism, intellectual disabilities, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, genetic syndromes and other concerns.
One of those children is Connor Shen, a 3-year-old who has Down syndrome. Shen has been receiving services since the age of 4 months, and was referred to PCDA by the Frank D. Lanterman Regional Center within California’s Department of Developmental Services. What began as physical and occupational therapy has expanded to include feeding and speech intervention.
“The best part of PCDA is that Connor doesn’t know it’s therapy,” said Kelly Shen, Connor’s mother. “He doesn’t think about it as work. He walks in there and it’s playtime to him. He gets a big smile on his face. He’ll kind of squeal with excitement. The therapists who are there are so great with him.”
“They’re good about respecting his childhood and his boundaries, but also getting the results that we need.”
PCDA is a strong proponent of the “Floortime” approach, a type of therapy that derives from the “Developmental, Individual, Relationship-based” (DIR) model that child specialists Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder created. As its name suggests, DIR/Floortime encourages parents or caretakers to help young children by literally meeting them at their developmental level — on the floor.
“This is really different than a focus on a child performing a task with an object or following directions,” Cullinane explained. “It’s really about building that human relationship with somebody else and attuning to their emotional experience.”
The focus on human relationships is why Bobby Duenckel’s entire family attends his therapy sessions at PCDA. The 13-year-old was referred to the agency because his social skills had begun to present challenges at home and at school. Through PCDA’s Developmental-Behavioral Consultation program, the Duenckels — both parents and four siblings — meet regularly with a clinician to understand and support Bobby’s social-emotional growth by playing games and engaging in conversation.
“It gave us the opportunity to bring our family members in to help address his behaviors, his issues and see how it affects the other family members,” said Kelly Duenckel, Bobby’s mother. “We all kind of work together to come up with a plan on how to address them.
“I like getting some insight into what other options I might have to address it and to try to come up with a new way to deal with his behaviors.”
Besides providing services out of its Pasadena facility, PCDA clinicians often visit children’s homes and schools, depending on each individual case. Professional education is also a large focus for the agency, both in the United States and abroad. PCDA has sent staff to China, Ghana, Romania and Canada to speak at conferences and train others in the field of child development. The organization is planning to host an internship program for psychologists from China as well.
“It’s a really important aspect of our whole mission,” said Cullinane, who had one of her talks turned into a webinar and subsequently a book that is set for release this month. “No matter how much we grow, we’re always going to only be able to serve a finite number of children. So we can impact a lot more people if we can train others.”
That finite number is usually somewhere around 1,000 children per year and nearly all of them are active clients who receive services at least once a week. As PCDA continues to touch more lives, Cullinane believes that there are various ways to define successful outcomes, but one that stands out more than others is when parents feel fully empowered to support their child’s development into the future.
“We’re not going to be in that child’s life forever,” Cullinane said, “but the parents are. If we can give the parent that confidence and the tools, then that’s sort of a goal right there.”

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