Liz Seipel
CEO, Child & Family Center

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, April 2, 2006
(Television interview conducted March 21, 2006)

Liz Seipel


[Letter from Catherine S. Clark]

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Liz Seipel, chief executive officer of the Child and Family Center in Santa Clarita. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: The Child and Family Center is 30 years old this year.

Seipel: Thirty years, that's right.

Signal: Have you been there all that time?

Seipel: (Yes), 30 years.

Signal: You started it?

Seipel: Myself and Carol Gelsinger, we started it. ... It actually is an interesting story. We were preschool teachers at the time, and we saw kids with behavioral problems that we wanted to help, and parents who were saying, "I can't stand my kid. What'll I do? He won't go to bed at night; he doesn't sit at the table and eat. I don't know what to do." So we got some training (in) behavioral management techniques and we started what was then called St. Stephens Special School.

Signal: It was an outgrowth of St. Stephens Episcopal Church?

Seipel: No, it was a mission outreach of the church. It was actually an afternoon program of St. Stephens Nursery School. We brought in volunteers, other people who were interested in helping kids, and we asked the preschool for their supplies. The church donated the space and we volunteered services, and we just started just like that.

Signal: You have three facilities around the valley today, but are you still affiliated with the church?

Seipel: No. We stayed there until 1985, and then we broke away and became our own entity.

Signal: It's a nonprofit corporation.

Seipel: Absolutely, 501(c)(3).

Signal: Tell us what the Child and Family Center does.

Seipel: The short version is, we strengthen families through counseling, education and support services. The majority of what we do is mental health services for emotionally (and) behaviorally disturbed kids. But we also have counseling for kids who are maybe using substances; we do parenting classes; we have a preschool that offers subsidized daycare for 3- and 4-year-olds ... who come from low-income, poverty-level families. We provide support services like case management. Sometimes we have families that need help finding a place to live or getting the rent for the next month. We basically help families stay together, strengthen them through counseling or other kinds of services to help keep the kids in the home and (help) the parents ... create a nurturing family.

Signal: It sounds like you do a wide variety of different things. What is your real strength?

Seipel: The majority is mental health. ... But I think the strength really is looking at the total family. We don't bring in a child for services alone; we always work with the family together. Our focus has always been the family. But sometimes there will be a member in the family who needs more help; it could be mental health services; it could — for instance, we see teens right now and sometimes they are already using substances, so we do some counseling and help them try to make that decision to stop. But it always involves working with the family, as well.

Signal: What if the family isn't cooperative? What if they're in denial about their teenager? Does the school district ever refer kids to you?

Seipel: A lot of our referrals come through the school district. ... We actually have mental health therapists in 26 different schools here in Santa Clarita. So we have a very good connection with the school districts. They refer the kids to us, but we can't see a child a minor unless the parent agrees to it. The very first step is getting the parent to agree that they want that counseling for the kids. And then once we start, we always bring the parent in.
    Yes, sometimes there are parents in denial. But I think the majority of parents really want what's best for their kids. They may not understand the problem, and our job is to help them learn what that problem is, and what they can do to help.
    If they get involved in it, lots of times they will come around. But there are few that we lose, and that is usually because the kids have convinced the parent — especially with substance abuse — "Oh I was just having fun, I have never done it before, this is the first time. I wasn't really using it" — and the parents want to believe it because, you know, if you don't believe it, then you really have to do something about it.

Signal: There are other organizations in town that provide one or another of the services you provide, such as substance abuse and mental health; do you work with other organizations? Or is it all in-house?

Seipel: We have collaboratives that we work with, but the truth is that the trend right now is that mental health services and substance abuse services are beginning to be offered at the same time with what we call co-occurring disorders.
    The trend is that funding is coming for both at the same time, because they're finding that lots of times, people with mental health problems like bipolar or ADD may be trying to self-medicate with substances like pills or alcohol. They start using that, and then they end up with that problem, as well. The other way, too: If you are using a lot of alcohol or drugs, that affects your mental health. So we actually provide both because of that.
    But yes, we do, for instance, the Domestic Violence Center — we connect with them if there is a domestic violence issue because we don't have a shelter now. And we don't do group homes or residential treatment centers. We refer that way.

Signal: How many people are on staff and what are their professions?

Seipel: We have 134 on staff. Of those, 100 are program staff people. Twelve are preschool teachers. ... The rest are clinical staff, and whatever administrative support services they need. So we start with child psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers, licensed social workers, marriage and family therapists, and then we even have interns in training. We provide supervised hours for them.

Signal: How big is your budget?

Seipel: Eight and a half million dollars.

Signal: Per year? How many people do you serve?

Seipel: I do a yearly end-of-year report. We categorize it two ways: direct services, which is basic face-to-face contacts, kids who come every week, or parents. Then we have our indirect, and that's basically our outreach out in the community.
    Last year we served over 17,000 in indirect services by going to schools, presenting seminars, any time there is a emergency in the community like a suicide or an accident where they are in the school. All of those were indirect contacts.
    We (also) provided over 4,000 children and adults (with) direct services.

Signal: Do they come from the entire Santa Clarita Valley?

Seipel: Absolutely.

Signal: Do you go beyond the Santa Clarita Valley?

Seipel: Actually we do.

Signal: It used to be Child and Family Center of Santa Clarita Valley, but now it's just Child and Family Center.

Seipel: Mostly just because we wanted to simplify the name. People can remember "Child and Family Center" easier. But we actually do reach out. We have a school-based therapist at (Vasquez) High School (in Acton), and then we also reach out into the northern part of the San Fernando Valley through a program called Family Preservation.

Signal: So something that started 30 years ago by a couple of preschool teachers grew into an $8.5 million annual operation. How did that happen?

Seipel: A lot happened in those 30 years. It was a gradual increase. ... How did it happen? There was a community need, and there continues to be that community need, and that's why all nonprofits exist: because we are here to serve the community. The need for the mental health services, the kinds of services we provide families and kids, has always been there, and it has increased with the growth of the valley. The need has increased. We always tried to respond to that need.
    My job has been to try to go and find the funding that will fund the services, because the majority of the people who come to the center can't afford the services. So it was a gradual thing. But as we got better and better at what we do, the different county departments recognized it, so we get a lot of funding from the (county) Department of Mental Health and the Department of Children and Family Services and probation, drug and alcohol, education — education (funding comes from the) state.

Signal: Do fund-raisers help?

Seipel: Absolutely. And we have a foundation that just started in 1998. That has been a godsend.

Signal: "Taste of the Town" is your big fund-raiser, right?

Seipel: Taste of the Town is what we call our signature event. It's really quite amazing. We have well over 1,000 (to) 2,000 people who come. You buy a ticket and when you come, it's all the food you can eat and all the drinks — and we have different kinds of drinks besides wine and beer; we have sodas and frozen lemonade and all of that. We have about 40 restaurants that provide the food for us, and then we have music and entertainment—

Signal: When and where will it be this year?

Seipel: May 7 at the Mann Biomedical Park. It's where it was last year.

Signal: So the county and state money and your fund-raising efforts cover some of the $8.5 million; what percentage of your budget is covered by user fees?

Seipel: Our little co-pay that we get from some people?

Signal: Yes, payment for service.

Seipel: Very little. I would say it may be something like $50,000 of that money is money that comes from the clients.

Signal: So the services are essentially free?

Seipel: Well, there is a small co-pay for some of the funded programs, and then some of the programs are fully funded. Then we have a really small program for families that don't qualify for a government-funded program. That's on a fee-for-service (basis) according to your income. But it's really small.
    That is one of the frustrations that we have — we don't have enough funding to provide the services for kids who really don't meet the criteria for certain grant-funded programs. Those kids fall between the cracks.

Signal: Does the typical family — let's say with a kid in high school who might be using drugs, and they want to come in for therapy — does that average family have to pay some amount?

Seipel: Again, it depends on the funding source. Each funding source has its own criteria. I would say the majority do not have to pay, but if they do have to pay, it is also based on the amount of money they make.

Signal: You mentioned that low-income families use your services, too—

Seipel: Oh, yeah. Back in 1995 — you asked how when got to where we are? When I said there was an evolution, there really was. In 1995, that was one of the years where we just took a giant leap, because the (county) Department of Mental Health decided that they were not going to do any of the children's services in this community, and they contracted with us to do it.
    What that meant was, all of a sudden, we were the provider for all the child and youth in this community who are on MediCal or on another funding source called AB3632. We had to all of sudden really increase our staff and our availability. We've been doing that every year, and with more funding, we continue to do it.

Signal: Is your preschool program a "regular" preschool or is does it cater to kids with problems?

Seipel: It is the most beautiful preschool you've ever seen. ... They are not kids with mental or emotional problems or anything like that. They are your regular 3- and 4-year-olds. The majority of the families are Hispanic. We have bilingual teachers in there. They are not all Hispanic, but the majority are. It's run like a regular preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. We have our little graduation for the 5-year-olds who are going into regular kindergarten.
    Many times when they come into the school, they can't speak English; they never really have ever been away from their home; so they don't really understand how a school works and what the routines are. As we go through the year with them, they become very appropriate, and they do very, very well in kindergarten. They make the transition very well.

Signal: Are all of your services provided bilingually?

Seipel: We try to, yes. There is a shortage of bilingual mental health staff therapists, so we're always looking for bilingual people.

Signal: You mentioned serving 4,000 people directly each year. Tell us about the waiting list.

Seipel: The perpetual wait list. I know. That's a real frustration. Because when people call, they need that help right away. They really need to get in. They wouldn't call if they didn't want the help. It's unfortunate that we have to pay the bills, so we cant bring in every child.
    What happens is, every child who comes in has to have a staff therapist, and it costs us anywhere between $8,000 and $9,000 a year to provide mental health services for kids. If we can't find the funding for it, we can't provide the services. And we're very limited. We're maxed out.

Signal: It costs $8,000 to $9,000 per individual client?

Seipel: For mental health. This would be either a child or a youth, an adolescent who has severe emotional and behavioral problems. We see them one or two sessions a week, and that's a lot of cost. We have to raise money to serve those kids. As you know, our government — they don't have all the money they need, either, county or state, so the funding is always limited.
    What happens is, we have to put people on a wait list while we wait for more funding, or we go out and have Taste of the Town and we raise more money so that we can provide services for those kids who don't fall within a grant.

Signal: You said many callers need immediate help. Is there a hotline where parents can call and say, "My kid's in trouble and we need help?" How does that work?

Seipel: They can call. There is a number that they can call and speak to a real person. It's our program number, 259-9439. They will get a person who will talk to them. Then we will have a therapist call them back. So we take the name and number and then within 24 hours, they get a call back.
    Now, if it's a crisis, then we see them right away. We have our crisis team on call Monday through Friday at the center. They are always there. So within hours, we're seeing people.

Signal: You deal with suicide threats?

Seipel: Absolutely. What happens is, the parent will call, the school will call, sometimes the kids call, and then we make arrangements for them to come in to see us. (We) provide crisis stabilization services for them, unless the therapist who takes the screening call — once we get a call that's a crisis, we get the crisis therapist online with them, and there are certain questions they ask. If they determine that this child is suicidal and critical, then they go right to the hospital. We arrange for that. We find them a place.

Signal: How many of these crisis situations do you handle? How common is it?

Seipel: It's more than you'd want to know. I'd say that we probably get — it used to be that we would get maybe three in a week. Sometimes now we get three in a day. It's very sad, but there has been an escalation of crisis.

Signal: What do you see happening in this valley? Is it harder for teenagers to cope these days?

Seipel: I think there is a lot more stress on teenagers. I think that we live in a stressful society. I think that there are a lot of commuter families in this community. I think that has grown, so kids are on their own a little bit more than they used to be.
    I think that a lot is expected of our kids. That creates stress, and sometimes kids themselves create the stress. They put it on themselves. They want to do this, they want to do that, they are in three different activities plus they have to have an A average because they have to get into that college. It used to be that if you had a 4.0 (grade point average), that was great. Well, now, if you don't have a 4.5 ... I mean, that's like a better-than-A average. Plus all these extra courses that you take, and extracurricular activities and community service — there is just an amazing pressure to succeed. And I don't necessarily think parents always cause it. I think it's just part of the society we live in now.

Signal: Your numbers are increasing by a factor greater than the growth of the valley—

Seipel: Plus, kids are more severely disturbed. That's the other thing that we've noticed. I think that's a sad statement for the society we are in right now. But we have learned, over the last 15 years of doing this work, I would say over the last probably at least 10 years, they have systematically gotten worse and worse and worse, and more severe cases.
    (Whereas) in the past you would get a case of some acting-out behaviors and there might be some issues going on, a divorce or some trauma (such as) a death in the family or something, you would work them through that, and maybe in six months they would be done. But now, the average that we see a youth, a child, an adolescent — probably the average time that we see an adolescent is two years. At least more than one. It could be three years. That's because they come in so severe.

Signal: That must be contributing to the waiting list, too — if you need to serve them for such a long time.

Seipel: That's correct. That's absolutely — you have hit it right on.
    What we're really trying to do — and this would be a message I would like to get out to the community, especially to parents and to teachers and doctors — if we could get to a place where kids were getting referred at an earlier age, not waiting to compound itself as an adolescent, because that's when you begin to see that this 13-year-old isn't adjusting to school and they begin to act out and it begins to be something that the parents no longer can really tolerate. But if you look back in the history, you'll know that at 4 and 5 and 8 they were having problems.

Signal: How do you figure that out? Are you suggesting that people who don't think they have a problem should come to you and sign up for services?

Seipel: I am suggesting that if a parent — I think parents know if something's bothering them about a child's behavior. If a child is not sleeping, if they are crying all the time and they're so unhappy or they are in trouble all the time, I think a professional can help them know if that is a problem or not.
    There (are) certain degree(s). Some of it is just part of development. They go through different phases, and you wait for them to kind of grow out of it because that's the phase they are in. But some kids don't grow out of those phases. And if it continues and it gets worse, there may be something else underneath there that need to be taken care of.

Signal: What kind of warning signs of severe problems should parents be looking for in their teenagers?

Seipel: I think relationship issues — you know, when they are not getting along with people. There's a certain tension between parents and adolescents anyway, and that can be a normal thing. But do they have friends? Are they connecting in another place? Or are they real loners? Are they just going in their room all the time and they're just by themselves?
    Kids handle these things in different ways. If it's a girl and they're crying all the time and they're sad, and if somebody says, "I wish I was dead" — that is a big warning sign. If their school performance goes down — if they've been going along, doing really well, and then all of a sudden their school performance goes way down, that's a alarm bell. You need to find out what's happening.

Signal: What do you say to the parent who says, "That sounds good, but I'm just not able to get my teenager in the car and bring him to you." What do you tell that parent?

Seipel: Put him in the car and bring him to us. Parents do have the power. Sometimes they don't know they have the power. Maybe they need to be talking to somebody for awhile and see if they can't come up with some things. We have parenting classes that are available—

Signal: With or without the kid?

Seipel: Well, the parenting class is without the kid. I think they need to talk to someone and then they need to negotiate something with their teenager that will get them there.

Signal: What's next for the Child and Family Center?

Seipel: Actually we're doing something really exciting, besides it being our 30th anniversary year. ... I just found out that we're finally going to pull the grading permit and we're actually beginning an expansion project to build onto our Centre Pointe Parkway facility.
    We're going to be adding on 10,000 square feet of counseling offices, and we're going to be building an education building — that is a separate standing building. We're very excited about that.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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