Help for area children in crisis

Wine, food festival to raise funds to sustain programs, services

By Michael Sullivan 05/31/2012

A woman calls the police for help with her boyfriend’s daughter. The woman has taken on the role of mother while her boyfriend is working as a trucker. The girl is 4 years old and the woman said the daughter is acting like a feral animal. The girl is physically aggressive, destroying objects and biting. Police arrive and contain the girl in the back seat of the woman’s car. The girl is biting and spitting on the officer.

After they arrived at the hospital, a call was made to Casa Pacifica’s Children’s Intensive Response Team to do a mental health assessment of the girl and offer an array of supportive services to help the family. Casa Pacifica, a nonprofit based in Camarillo, provides shelter and services for abused and neglected children and adolescents, and those with severe emotional, social, behavioral and mental health challenges throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

This is one of the hundreds of calls the Children’s Intensive Response Team receives throughout the year. It’s a sad story, but not a new one. And the number of mental health calls for children in crisis is rapidly on the rise in the county.
“In the last six months, we have seen the biggest increase with the highest acuity,” said Jody Kussin, Ph.D., director of community programs for Ventura County.

The crisis team, made up of six emergency responders, was created six years ago to provide intervention for troubled families with children. Typically, the work had been conducted over the phone. Now, more than half of the calls require onsite assistance. In the last month, the team received 200 calls; 105 needed emergency onsite help.

“We go everywhere around the clock,” Kussin said.

Chandra Gonsales, program manager of the Children’s Intensive Response Team, has numerous stories about children in crisis throughout the county. Along with mental health disorders that present dangers to others, the team is receiving more calls for suicidal teens.

“I recently went out to Los Robles to do an assessment of a 17-year-old girl who OD’d on prescription medication,” Gonsales said. “She said she felt that way (suicidal) for a long time, that she had been planning to do it on that day and had an elaborate plan.”

The girl has been receiving support from the team for several months and seems to have stabilized. Gonsales continued, sharing more stories about the various calls the team has received, including a 20-year-old who wanted to cut off his arms and legs and a 16-year-old who had been cutting herself and was suicidal while living with her mom, who was on hospice.

The stories are grim, but Gonsales said she couldn’t be proud erof her team in handling such saddening calls.

“If people only knew the different kinds of children who need help — it really boasts to the professionalism of our team,” she said.

The crisis team is only a small facet of all the services Casa Pacifica provides to the community. It has a residential treatment center and offers emergency shelter care. It has a therapeutic preschool, an on-campus non-public school for residents, and maintains school placement for students in the emergency shelter. It provides health services, parent-child interaction therapy, therapeutic behavioral services, supportive behavioral services and much more.

Because of all of the services provided by Casa Pacifica, Chief Executive Officer Steve Elson, Ph.D. and his staff see Ventura County’s darker underbelly, where neglect and abuse remain common if not prevalent for many kids in the area. The shelter is almost at capacity, with 43 children currently versus around 30 kids in years past. The number of crisis calls is increasing. The severity of the crises is also on the rise.

“Kids are just not being taken care of,” Elson said. “The family lost their home; they are living in a run-down apartment somewhere. A lot of it, drugs are involved…. It’s not an uncommon tale.”

Elson also said everyone is being affected.

“There are kids from every community, from the rich to the poor,” he said.

To continue to provide the same number of quality services, Casa Pacifica will be holding its annual Angels Food and Wine Festival on Sunday, June 3, 1-4 p.m. at the campus of California State University, Channel Islands, in Camarillo.

The festival features cuisine from area eateries and award-winning wine from California, plus beer from microbreweries. Live entertainment will also be provided. Tickets start at $100 and all proceeds benefit Casa Pacifica.

The Angels Food and Wine Festival plays an integral role in keeping Casa Pacifica going. Last year, the event raised more than $310,000 of its $2.6 million budget. Because Casa Pacifica is a public/private partnership, it must raise funds from community events and doesn’t rely solely on government funding.

“Our basic philosophy is to enhance the (children’s) lives,” Kussins said. 

For more information about Casa Pacifica or to buy tickets for the Angels Food and Wine Festival, go to


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