Surrounded by miles of rural farmland and the rolling hills of Camarillo, Casa Pacifica Centers for Children & Families has given sanctuary and hope to at-risk children and adolescents since 1994.
“The original vision was that Casa Pacifica would become a one-stop shop for abused and neglected kids entering the welfare system and removed from home by law enforcement or child protective services,” said Dr. Steven Elson, CEO of Casa Pacifica.
The nonprofit organization’s main headquarters at 1722 S. Lewis Road in Camarillo is tucked into a sprawling 24-acre campus located five miles from the Pacific Ocean, including branches in Santa Maria, Santa Barbara and Carpinteria that provide individual in-home crisis intervention and behavioral support services to more than 1,000 kids in Santa Barbara County and more than 4,000 clients annually.
“One of our community outreach programs called Wraparound is fairly intensive,” Elson said. “A whole team of specialists comes together and works with a specific child and family, and the intent is to keep them together.”
The on-campus Emergency Shelter Care residential program is a safe refuse for children, and with 45 beds the shelter provides short-term housing for infants through age 18.
Children at the shelter are evaluated by clinical staff to administer medical care and social and educational assessments aimed to assist Child Protective Services and dependency courts in Ventura and Santa Barbara County in steps determining the child’s future.
On average, the length of stay at the shelter is 50 days, and most of the children at the shelter continue to attend school daily courtesy of Casa Pacifica shuttles.
Once the term expires, about half of the children go home or to a relative’s home and a third will be placed in foster homes. Others with emotional, behavioral and social challenges or academic skill defects are transferred to the long-term Residential Treatment Services on campus with 28 beds. Under the 12-month experimental Residential Treatment program, adolescents ages 11 to 17 receive individualized, intensive therapeutic treatment by a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers and nurses on staff.
Youths are taught cognitive development and social skills intended to help them build confidence and leadership skills in order to live fulfilling and productive lives at home and in the community.
According to Elson, children in the program with health impairments and specific learning disabilities are referred by various school districts to attend Casa Pacifica’s on-campus, special-education Non Public School.
“Our classrooms are very small,” Elson said. “We have about eight children in a classroom with a teacher and an aide, and there are behavioral specialists available.”
The low student-to-staff ratio at the school ensures that students receive individualized instruction in various academic courses, including mathematics, reading, music, art, online courses, and vocational education and transition programs.
Forming relationships with the children is an essential therapy component of the program put into practice daily at two 14-bed cottages for girls or boys, where each child is assigned to a youth development specialist who acts as a life coach, friend and mentor.
There is also a primary care clinic on campus operated by physicians, nurses, kids residing on campus, and young adults who have emancipated out of the program.
“We are now serving what we call the alumni kids,” Elson told Noozhawk. “Youths who have aged out of the program at 18 years old have come back to us, sometimes with their own children. So the clinic becomes a medical home for them and their family.”
Elson, the son of a missionary family, grew up in a foster home in Arkansas from fourth grade to high school, and explained that housing for emancipating foster youth is not only a national issue but also a local problem that is addressed daily at Casa Pacifica.
Casa Pacifica’s Coaching Independence in Transitional Youth (CITY) program, coupled with the new housing facilities on the Camarillo campus, is structured to provide assistance to transitioning foster youths.
The organization recently leased two acres of land adjacent to the Casa Pacifica campus and refurbished the three buildings on the property, with two of them having been converted to homes accommodating newly emancipated youth.
Stepping Stone housing is designed for newly emancipated 18- to 21-year-olds, including single mothers, who have left the program and are not yet ready to live on their own and require further development of independent living skills.
During the 18-month residency, youths perform basic household chores as “rent” contributions and are encouraged and assisted with educational and employment goals.
Casa Pacifica admits a child into one of the programs every three hours at the cost of $33 per day and child.
“The public-sector funding we receive doesn’t cover the cost of services, especially on campus,” Elson said. “We rely heavily on private contributions to maintain the quality of care we provide to our kids, so every donation we receive helps to transform a child’s life.”