It may be one of the largest community mental health agencies in Los Angeles County, but Pasadena-based Pacific Clinics keeps its care personal, always looking to improve services to some of the most vulnerable in the community and help those struggling with mental illness to live their best lives, one person at a time.
Although the nonprofit serves more than 22,500 clients annually throughout 60 locations spanning the Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, and has an operating budget of about $98 million, Pacific Clinics President/CEO James Balla said he just keeps his eye on that one patient at a time.
“We have to approach it by making a difference individually, one by one, to help as many as we can reach the highest level of functioning and the best quality of life possible for them,” said Balla, who recently sat down to discuss his agency’s improvements. “We believe that in treating mental illness you need to treat the whole person to help an individual improve and function independently and recover. You can impact their lives. Not everyone recovers or reaches their goal but every individual can improve and reach a level of improved quality, depending on each individual, with wraparound services.”
To that end, Pacific Clinics has taken the integrated care model to heart, focusing on not just mental health, but health and substance use treatment. Supportive services include housing, job training and placement, as well as early childhood education.
Early childhood education might seem a little outside the nonprofit’s core strategy, but Balla said it ties in perfectly with Pacific Clinics’ mission to help one of the most vulnerable communities through early intervention: low-income, high-risk children. Through the nationally recognized Head Start/Early Head Start program, Pacific Clinics provides $10.5 million in services to about 645 children at more than 200 locations.
“We saw the connection between supporting low-income families who have limited access to resources to prepare their children to enter the education system,” said Balla, pointing to research that shows children who receive preschool education before kindergarten have more successful outcomes and are more likely to graduate.
Wassy Tesfa, divisional director Head Start/Early Head Start, wrote the grant for the program, which is federally funded. The cross-over in services has been a perfect match for the nonprofit, she noted, especially with the work they do in outreach to the homeless. This school year, they are serving about 19 children from homeless families, the biggest number they’ve ever had.
“It’s a beautiful place for the children to be,” she said, adding that the effects of poverty can create trauma and stressors that have lifelong impacts on health, mental health, educational achievement and income.
“That’s the only single thing these children have in their lives, is their schooling,” Tesfa said. “You may be homeless on the street or bunking with Grandma, they may be moved around a lot from shelter to shelter, but they have this one sure thing of coming to school every day. Some come from abusive homes. We feed them healthy meals and it gives them a sense of belonging and stability.”
The program also serves foster children. Many also come from minority homes, and are English language learners. Every classroom has bilingual staff to communicate with parents, ranging from Spanish, Armenian, Eastern Slavic languages and Chinese dialects. The program works closely with the parents or guardians, who are treated as the children’s primary educators, so staff encourages strong family engagement.
Building on the program’s success this past year, Pacific Clinics received an expanded contract to convert 52 slots from half-day to full-day care, meaning that it can serve more children for longer periods of the day.
Tesfa said she would love to continue to grow the programs, especially working with public school districts to implement Head Start programs there. Infant and toddler care costs run on average between $18,000 to $24,000 per year, due in part to the required 1-4 ratios of instructors and children.
“We’d love to collaborate with public schools, they’re in desperate need of early infant care. It’s become more expensive than college; it’s a lot of money, and for low-income children, it’s impossible,” she said.
Being offered through Pacific Clinics gives the program a unique ability to conduct mental health screenings with young children and provide a smooth transition to in-house mental or behavioral health services for children exhibiting problems. The early prevention and intervention can make a life-changing difference, she noted.
“This is a very good place for Head Start to be; it’s a good marriage of sorts with Pacific Clinics,” she said, noting that the program’s impacts have been proven: By the end of one year of Head Start services, 22% more children were enrolled in health insurance, 50% more had access to a dentist, and all children and families had access to a mental health professional.
For the first time ever, Pacific Clinics recently opened a stand-alone mental health clinic for children ages 0-5, renovating a previous location on Lake Avenue. The centralized location will help give support services to children, including those in its Head Start programs, and also eventually add adult mental health specialists to support the parents, said Shawn Caracoza, executive vice president and chief clinical officer.
“Our philosophy is you can’t treat children without treating the adults in their lives,” he said.
The idea is to provide wraparound services to help support the entire family, strengthening the integrated care through targeted case management, which links clients with another resource in the community.
“If you have a child who is depressed, there is medication that can help; but maybe they’re depressed because they’re homeless, moving from foster care to foster care. Maybe they don’t have decent clothes and are embarrassed at how they look at school. How can a child sleep well if he’s cold or hungry?” he said. “All those things impact your mental health. We need to address some of those basic needs.”
Along with its own Housing Department, Pacific Clinics has numerous partnerships, both with the county, city and other nonprofits, and provides temporary and permanent housing, food, clothing and medical health treatment to help its clients achieve well-rounded care.
“We can do all the mental help intervention in the world and give medication to provide cognitive therapy, etc., but if a child can’t sleep well at night because he’s cold, or doesn’t have decent clothes or a backpack to go to school with, our ability to treat effectively is going to be limited,” he said, adding that the funding to achieve those extras can often be frustrating. “There are struggles; to get completely successful outcomes takes way more than just the medical model.”
Balla agreed, acknowledging the “sister agencies” they work with, adding: “We have to be a community of providers. Not one agency has all the resources, but together we can use those wraparound resources to fully help a family in need.”
To learn more, visit pacificclinics.org.