After graduating from UCLA nearly four decades ago with a degree in psychology, Gerald Zaslaw thought about becoming a parole officer. But after briefly working alongside one, he had a change of plans. Rather than police children, Zaslaw decided he wanted to help them.
And so he has.
Zaslaw, a burly, no-nonsense blunt-talker, has dedicated the better part of his life to helping troubled children put the pieces back together. Now, the president and chief executive of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in West Los Angeles is stepping down Jan. 17 after more than 15 years at the helm.
Elias Lefferman, currently Vista's executive vice president, will replace him.
Founded in 1908 as a Jewish orphans home, Vista has retained its Jewish flavor. About 40 percent of its clientele is Jewish, and Vista operates the only Jewish foster-care program in California. Among the dozen buildings that dot its lush 17-acre campus is a synagogue, which features a multiethnic choir that reflects its expansion beyond the Center's Jewish roots.
In the past decade and a half, the 60-year-old Zaslaw has transformed Vista into one of the most cutting-edge facilities of its type in the country. Under his direction, Vista established the nation's first residential program for teenage "cutters" (girls who mutilate themselves), and the state's first high-security residential treatment center for troubled children. Zaslaw has also helped spearhead the movement to include parents in the treatment of their children, rather than to blame and banish them.
"Jerry is a risk taker who's not afraid to take on innovative, creative projects that require him to stick his neck out," said John Hatakeyama, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, which contracts with Vista for several services. "His dogged advocacy for children and families make him stand out not only in the county but statewide."
Zaslaw, who has run six social services organizations over the years, had planned to step aside two years ago but said he stayed on at the behest of the board.
Reflecting on his tenure at Vista, Zaslaw said he has few regrets. He wishes he could have established a medical psychiatric unit, a missing link in Vista's menu of services. He also would have liked to have been able to pay his workers higher wages to better retain them. (Vista social workers, for instance, earn an estimated 15 percent less than their Los Angeles County counterparts, Zaslaw said.)
What saddens him most is the general state of child welfare services across the country, which he said are badly underfunded and overtaxed.
"It's like we're given a car that's been in a major head-on collision and given money to fix only a fender," he said.
The situation is expected to worsen both at Vista and elsewhere. With deficits ballooning, federal, state and local governments could slash social services spending across the board, he said. Although Vista plans no layoffs, some departments have instituted a hiring freeze and might have to scale back cultural, religious and teenage vocational training programs.
Governmental monies account for about 85 percent of Vista's budget.
Though quick to share credit with his board and staff, Zaslaw's laser-beam focus on improving the quality of Vista's programs and expanding its offerings appear to have burnished its reputation.
When he arrived in 1987, Vista had 150 employees, serviced 1,200 people annually and had a budget of $9 million, Zaslaw said. Today, it employs 500, services nearly 5,000 and has a $32 million budget.
And Zaslaw hasn't shied away from confrontation to protect Vista's interests, future CEO Lefferman said. About a decade ago, Zaslaw asked the county for some money to underwrite the facility's day-care program. When the county balked, Zaslaw threatened to shut the program down. A day before the scheduled closure, the county came through with the funding, Lefferman said.
"Jerry's kind of a street-fighting guy, and you don't take advantage of him," he said.
Looking back, Zaslaw points to many highlights, including the creation of a support group for the parents of troubled children. The network has proven so successful, that about 15 percent of mothers and fathers continue to attend sessions even after their children have returned to their care.
Zaslaw also urges parents or guardians to take part in a young person's healing process by having them attend some therapy sessions. As he sees it, children will eventually go home to their parents, and all family members must learn how to coexist in a healthy way. Whereas a previous generation of social workers might have blamed mothers and fathers for a child's bad behavior, Zaslaw said minors are sometimes afflicted with treatable medical conditions, such as autism or attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder, rather than rotten parenting.
A former president of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, a trade association, Zaslaw's iconoclastic thinking is perhaps best exemplified by the "cutters" program and the high-security child's residential facility, observers said.
In late 2000, Vista opened the "cutters" program, which counsels and houses young women who physically injure themselves. Previously thought to be a manifestation of suicidal tendencies, cutters are now understood to be trying to somehow gain control of their lives or punish themselves. At Vista, a counselor teaches the girls to curb their impulse toward self-mutilation and to express themselves in a positive way. About 30 teenage girls a year spend three to nine months in the program.
Also in 2000, Vista opened the state's first high-security residential psychiatric treatment center for severely disturbed teens. That the facility ever got off the ground testifies to Zaslaw's tenacity.
For more than a decade, he fought to open such a center at Vista. He argued that shipping troubled youths to other states for special care, as was then the common practice, deprived them of a much-needed family support system. Having run two residential psychiatric treatment centers before coming to Vista, he fought hard to establish one locally, eventually winning his crusade.
"These are kids who wouldn't be getting treatment they need elsewhere," Zaslaw said of the locked psychiatric unit, which serves about 24 children a year. "They'd simply be locked away somewhere."
Does Vista work? Jennifer Marder, a 27-year-old graduate student at CSUN, thinks it does.
As a teenager, Marder hung out with the proverbial wrong crowd, smoked lots of dope and mouthed off to her parents. After dropping out of high school, her desperate family sent her to Vista as a last resort.
Initially, the rebellious 15-year-old resisted making changes in her life. She even ran away from Vista. Over time, the therapy began to sink in. She vowed to change.
Marder began attending Vista's high school and thrived from the personal attention and support she received. After earning her diploma, she enrolled in a child psychology class at Santa Monica College and later went on to earn a bachelor's degree in child development. Now, Marder is working on a master's degree, which Vista partially underwrites with a monthly $275 stipend.
"If I hadn't spent a couple of years at Vista, I doubt I would have even gotten my high school diploma and would have probably continued making bad decisions," said Marder, who is getting married in May. "Vista's a great place."
Zaslaw would agree. But after years of traversing the choppy waters of children's rights advocacy, he said he's ready for a different type of journey.
He and his wife, Sandi, are planning to leave it all behind. The couple will soon sail to Mexico and Latin America for an extended vacation. So committed are the pair to retirement, that they just sold their 3,500-square-foot home in the San Fernando Valley and moved onto their 45-foot boat.
As excited as he is about his upcoming adventure, Zaslaw frets about rough seas. "I get seasick," he said with a laugh.