Growing up strong

January 10, 2013
Growing up strong
Like its parent organization, Saint John’s Health Center, the Child and Family Development Center (CFDC), located on the west side of Saint John’s Health Center campus, is rooted in the tradition of Catholic, nonprofit healthcare. But CFDC shines a beacon of hope above and beyond what even the most welcoming of hospitals can provide.

“For more than 50 years, our goal has been to foster empowerment, growth and behaviors that enable children, adolescents and adults to succeed,” says Rebecca Refuerzo, LCSW, executive director of the CFDC. “Although the clinic is located in Santa Monica, approximately 75% of the children and families receiving services live in pockets of poverty on the Westside.”

The CFDC is one of the few remaining community mental health programs directed at the emotional and developmental needs of low-income and minority children and families. Established in 1962 by an alliance between the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, the Kennedy Foundation and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the center serves all at-risk or overburdened families with children from birth to age 24. Priority is given to underserved populations.

Tripling its services over the past 18 years – the center now serves more than 1,000 needy families annually – mental health professionals from the center travel to local public schools, community centers, parks and homes, reinforcing the concept of a “clinic without walls,” Refuerzo says.

“As an organization, we have placed a high value on primary prevention by promoting the growth and development of children 0 to 5 years of age,” she explains. For example, the Preschool Mental Health Consultation program is in response to alarming statistics that show pre-kindergarten children are expelled from daycare and early education centers at a rate more than three times that of older children. By embedding highly-trained CFDC therapists in preschool environments, children with emotional, behavioral or development differences can be screened and linked early to intervention services, helping them better fulfill their potential of being school-ready.

Partnerships For Families is a program targeting pregnant women and mothers with newborns who are at risk of child maltreatment or neglect due to substance abuse, domestic violence, severe postpartum depression or the chronic stress of living in poverty. Other programs include the nationally recognized Therapeutic Preschool; school-based services such as the Child & Youth Development Project and Families and Schools Together; clinic-based services such as Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Clinic, and Child Abuse Treatment and Intervention Services.

The Child and Family Development Center provides almost $4 million in healthcare services annually, according to Ruth Cañas, a licensed clinical social worker and program manager of outpatient services. The center is funded by LA County Department of Mental Health, First 5 LA, the city of Santa Monica, private and corporate foundations and major donors.

“One thing that makes us unique is our capacity to serve the Spanish-speaking community,” Cañas says. “We make every effort to hire people who are fluent so we can provide not only linguistically appropriate but also culturally appropriate care.”

Whether helping children reach their potential, strengthening families to keep them intact or providing emotional and psychological support, CFDC is the light at the end of the tunnel for many. “We go out there and build relationships with the families,” Cañas says, “and we take away the stigma so children can grow up to be healthy individuals.”