Jewish Journal

A New Hope

Vista Del Mar opens a unique treatment facility for severely disturbed youths.

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on May. 18, 2000 at 8:00 pm

Janet's nightmare began when her 14-year-old daughter, Susan, began to earn failing grades, use drugs and exhibit the first violent signs of emerging bipolar disorder.

By age 16, she had threatened her mother with a knife, carved "I'm ugly" in two-inch-high letters on her leg and slit her wrists; she was repeatedly admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Janet (not her real name) was constantly dialing 911 or rushing her daughter to the emergency room as the violence and suicide attempts escalated. Then there's Susan (also not her real name). On a terrible evening in the late 1990s, 20 emergency personnel, including police with rubber bullets, required 45 minutes to subdue Susan after she raged on the roof in a rainstorm.

Even the renowned residential treatment program at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Fede-ration of Greater Los Angeles, could not success-fully treat the teenager. Susan repeatedly ran away from the campus and was discharged after she mutilated herself so badly, her mother says, "there was hardly any unscathed skin on her body."

At that point, a distraught Janet discovered there was no place in California for her family to turn. State lawbarred the operation of secure, locked facilities for juveniles receiving mental health services, and open, residential units like Vista couldn't provide the therapeutic intensity and around-the-clock security Susan needed.A psychiatric hospital, the only other option, could offer only a temporary fix, with a maximum stay of just 15 days. "So I was forced to send my daughter 1,000 miles away to an out-of-state program," Janet laments.Last week, Vista officially dedicated a new unit, the Joyce and Stanley Black Family Special Care Facility, which will offer new hope to children like Susan. The first of its kind to be designed and built in California, the unit came about only after Vista CEO Jerry Zaslaw worked for 12 years to help change state law to allow locked "community treatment facilities" for severely disturbed youths.

By the time the law was changed in 1997, Vista board members had long been concerned about the lack of care forsuch children. "We'd had to turn away up to 30 youngsters each year, and we would take 25 more who were marginal,because we knew there was no place else in the state for them to go,"Zaslaw says. "And in the majority of those cases,unfortunately, we failed."The problem was that children, like Susan, repeatedly ran away from Vista's residential cottage setting in Los Angeles. Zaslaw recalls a 13-year-old girl who often fled the campus for Venice Beach, where she sleptin vacant houses and hung out with adults who engaged in drug-related and criminal activities. The Black facility will provide such children with a safe haven. "They will not have to make the decision,"Will I stay or will I go?" Zaslaw says. "We will let them know that they will stay and while they stay, we willhelp them. We will provide a nurturing environment where they can't hurt themselves, and no one can hurt them. And once they realize that escaping isn't an option, then truly meaningful treatment can begin."

The road to the new state law and the Black facility was long and arduous, Zaslaw says. Children's advocacy groups wanted assurances that locked wards would provide adequatetreatment for seriously troubled children, and the Vista CEO traveled to Sacramento dozensof times to help lobby lawmakers and create new regulations. When the law passed in 1997, the state declined to allocate any funding for the half dozen "community treatment facilities"planned around California. But Vista officials vowed to persevere. "Vista Del Mar has had a 90-year history of meeting children's needs, and we quite simply had to respond," said Ruth Shuken, a longtime board member and champion of the new program.

And so, after the law passed in 1997, board members toiled to raise the $3.5 million needed to buildthe three-wing, 14,500-square-foot facility, which will accommodate 24 residents aged 6 to 16. When longtime Vista supporters Joyce and Stanley Black came forward with the lead gift of more than $1 million, the project was on its way.

By July 1, the first residents will arrive at the 30- to 180-day program. There will be a resident-to-staff ratio of two-to-one; a team of full-time, licensed therapists to provide individual, group and family counseling; three classrooms staffed by certified special education teachers and aides; 24-hour-a-day coverageby registered nurses; art and movement therapy; and social skills and vocational training, among other programs. The goal, simply, is to help residents reach a level of mental health that will enable them to make the transitionto less restrictive environments and, ultimately, to reunite with their families.
Vista's telephone is already ringing off the hook with referrals to the new program; the California Department of Mental Health alone has two dozen children in mind.Janet, for her part, is grateful. "I'm glad to know, for the families that come after me, that Vista has a solution for children like my daughter," she says.

Dedicated Philanthropists

As a boy growing up in Los Angeles, Stanley Black attended the Shriner-sponsored circus eachyear with his father and 100 guests aged 8 to 16 from Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services.

The children made an impression. Black, who now owns a nationwide portfolio of commercial and industrial properties, went on to serve on Vista's board and, with his wife, Joyce, to raiseand donate some $5 million to the Los Angeles campus. Recently, the couple's dedication culminated in a lead gift of $1 million to launch Vista's Joyce and Stanley Black Family Special Care Facility, a secure residential unit for severely disturbed children (see main story).

Joyce and Stanley Black

Vista is just one of dozens of charities supported by the renowned philanthropists, who have donated for decades to everything from the United Jewish Fund to Jewish Big Brothers, the Boy Scouts to City of Hope.

The Blacks came to charitable work early. Joyce recalls how she and Stanley donated $100 to the United Jewish Appeal in the first years of their marriage, at the time a hefty sum for the young couple. And at 22, Stanley replaced his late father on the board of The Guardiansof The Jewish Home for the Aging. He was, he recalls, "the youngest person in the room."

After he left the Navy in 1954, Stanley Black went into real estate and eventually joinedwith a partner to develop "freeway close" office buildings throughout Southern California.Over the years, he helped raised funds to build a new facility for the Union Rescue Mission;the Blacks also gave the starting money to build the L.A. ORT Technical Institute and donated50 percent of the property for the Watts Foundation's new headquarters in South Central Los Angeles. The front yard of their Beverly Hills estate is decorated with playful, lifelike sculptures forpassersby to enjoy; actress Elizabeth Taylor once left a bottle of champagne at the gate to thank the Blacks for the public art display.

Joyce, who has served as Los Angeles chair for the State of Israel Bonds, among many other endeavors,is proud that her three children, Jack, Janis and Jill, along with son-in-law Norman Zalben, have continued the family tradition of giving. "You have to give back to the community," Stanley explains.

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