Children and Families
August 10, 2011
Philip Browning’s wife was, to put it kindly, skeptical when her husband told her that he’d been tapped to temporarily take control of Los Angeles County’s deeply troubled Department of Children and Family Services. “Why,” she asked, “would you want to take on a situation like that?”
After all, Browning had emerged as one of the county’s most innovative and effective executives while running the huge Department of Public Social Services, which provides safety-net services for more than 2.6 million people on the economic margins of society.
Browning’s answer to his wife, who used to be a child protective services worker, was simple and direct: he was jumping into the DCFS pressure cooker because the Board of Supervisors asked him to do so.
“I was in the military for a long time and was accustomed to being asked to do things not entirely of my own choosing,” says Browning with a hint of his Southern gentility. “I think I have a sense of obligation.”
With the board’s official and unanimous vote for Browning this week, he becomes DCFS’ third interim director in the past nine months, following the dismissal of permanent chief Trish Ploehn amid an uproar over a number of high-profile child deaths and questions about the department’s forthrightness.
Browning was selected by board members who’d grown so dissatisfied that they retook control of the department’s management several months ago from the chief executive office, which had been given that responsibility as part of a sweeping remake of county government in 2007.
Although Browning is an interim director, the board has made it clear that they do not want just a seat-warmer while a search is underway for a permanent boss. He is empowered to take the actions necessary to improve the agency’s performance, as he has done at DPSS, making it among the nation’s leaders in serving its clients.
Whether at DPSS or DCFS, Browning says he offers a consistent approach. “The goal is to hire qualified people, get them trained and hold them accountable.” He says he knows that, for some managers, that final piece—accountability—can be uncomfortable.
“It’s tough to take the difficult disciplinary actions. We let people stay in positions where we know they should be moved,” says Browning, recalling times that he’s recommended the dismissals of longtime DPSS employees for violating client confidentiality or committing other serious transgressions.
That said, Browning is known as a team builder—more inclined to motivate than criticize. He also is legendary for his reliance on statistics to gauge an operation’s effectiveness. “Without good data,” he says, “you can’t change a program.”
At DPSS, he says, “we measure everything that is possible to be measured.” Those numbers are then analyzed monthly in a formal setting by managers.
“When I first came to DPSS, it was a very scary process,” Browning says of those sessions. “People would throw up before the meeting. The prior administration was more into criticism. It put too much stress on our employees. I just changed the focus. I told them we are all in this together. Let’s share our secrets of success. Let’s don’t try to be so competitive.”
Late Tuesday, after the board’s vote, Browning sent a memo to DCFS employees. He knows that some of them undoubtedly will be questioning the wisdom of selecting someone not currently immersed in Los Angeles’ child welfare system.
So he wrote of his masters of social work degree and the many years he spent in human services in Alabama and later in Washington, D.C. He recounted his 2001 hiring to turnaround a Los Angeles County District Attorney operation that had been widely criticized for failing to aggressively obtain child support money from so-called deadbeat dads. As the first director of child support services, his office increased collections 36% to $500 million and, he wrote, “moved the agency from a law enforcement system to a human services culture with a priority on customer service.”
Then, after talking about his belief in data, accountability and wellness programs (“I ran my five miles today,” he noted), Browning closed by saying that “the work performed by DCFS is some of the most challenging in America and…will certainly be a challenge to me.”
“I need your help and support.”
May 5, 2011
Mother’s Day means flowers, candy, hugs and a full court press at Hallmark. But for many new moms in Los Angeles, becoming a mother is no brunch at the Ritz.
Data from the latest “Los Angeles Mommy and Baby Survey,” published by the county Department of Public Health earlier this year, show that despite some positive news on breast-feeding, prenatal care and post-delivery checkups, there’s trouble in Momville.
From depression to dental woes, unplanned pregnancies to prenatal obesity, the survey offers what can only be termed a mother lode of insights into new motherhood in L.A.
First, the good news. “Over 90% of the women in L.A. County receive prenatal care, which is spectacular compared to other parts of the country,” said Dr. Diana Ramos, the county’s director of reproductive health, who noted that Medi-Cal has helped to ensure that low-income women in California are covered during pregnancy. Also, 85.2% of the mothers surveyed had breastfed their babies and 98.3% took their newborn in for a well-baby check-up.
Now for the not-so-good.
The countywide survey, which canvassed 6,264 new mothers who gave birth in 2007, found that 58.1% of new mothers surveyed said they were at least a little depressed after giving birth, and 19.9% said they had been depressed for a period of two weeks or more during their pregnancies.
“One of the things that is quite startling is the number of women who experience depression,” said Cynthia Harding, director of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Programs for the public health department, which produced the survey.
“It says that we need to provide more social support,” Harding said. “Pregnancy is a time of joy, and if you’re not feeling the joy, you might feel ‘What’s wrong with me?’”
To that end, a multifaceted push is on to increase awareness of maternal depression, reduce the stigma and train health care and other providers to better recognize the symptoms. This brochure is being distributed this month to new mothers in all hospitals across the county.
“It’s a very, very vulnerable time,” said Caron Post, director of the L.A. County Perinatal Mental Health Task Force, which is spearheading the “Speak Up When You’re Down” campaign with the Department of Public Health. “Mothers put on a happy face. It’s taboo to be depressed and be a mother.”
Obesity is also a big concern.
More than 38% of the mothers surveyed were overweight or obese before getting pregnant, and more than a quarter said they didn’t exercise during pregnancy.
“If there was any one call to action, it would be obesity. It’s one of the big risk factors in maternal mortality,” Dr. Ramos said. “Yes, we all know there’s an obesity issue. But I don’t think we’re doing enough to give directive advice [on keeping weight down] to reproductive age women.”
There’s also room for improvement when it comes to pre-pregnancy preparedness.
For instance, 53.4% of the new moms surveyed said their pregnancies had been unwanted or “mistimed,” and 34.1% said their husband or partner shared those views.
What’s more, 70.7% received no preconception health counseling and 54.4% didn’t know about the importance of taking folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy. And 9.6% smoked in the six months before becoming pregnant.
Not exercising during pregnancy was by far the most common “risk behavior,” reported by 28.6% of those surveyed. But other risks showed up, too, including drinking alcohol (10.5%), exposure to second-hand smoke (6.3%), smoking (2.6%) and using illegal drugs (2.4%).
In the 3rd District, women who participated in the written survey reported high rates of breastfeeding and well-baby check-ups. They were the least likely to have been overweight prior to pregnancy—and the most likely to have received fertility treatment.
They also were the likeliest to drink alcohol during their pregnancies, 12.4% compared to 10.5% countywide. Any level of drinking during pregnancy is of concern to public health officials. “It may be two or three weeks before you realize you’re pregnant. If you want to get pregnant, stop drinking ahead of time,” said county maternal programs director Harding.
Another painful finding: dental distress.
Nearly 19% of those surveyed (21% in the 3rd District) said they’d experienced periodontal disease during pregnancy. Many women can’t find a dentist who’ll treat them, especially during pregnancy, while others are fearful and put off going until the pain is unbearable, advocates said. In either case, tooth and gum infections can present a serious medical risk for mother and fetus when bacteria enter the bloodstream.
The survey is part of the Los Angeles Mommy and Baby Project, which was launched following an increase in infant deaths in the Antelope Valley, mostly among African Americans, from 1999 to 2002. After an initial 2004 pilot survey in the Antelope Valley, the project was expanded countywide in 2005.
A new survey of women who gave birth in 2010 is currently underway, and is expected to capture stresses inflicted by the current economic downturn.
“We are seeing more and more patients who have lost their health insurance but don’t qualify for any low-income programs,” said Debra Farmer, president and CEO of the Westside Family Health Center in Santa Monica.
Even among the 2007 moms, 36.7% said they had no insurance, 22.4% reported stress over unpaid bills, 13.8% were stressed out over job loss experienced by their husband or partner, and 11.6% over losing their own job.
There are concerns that as California moves to implement health reform—and to cope with a drastic budget situation—that cutbacks will diminish the level of maternity services available to those who need them most.
“I think a lot of what has been there in the past is eroding because of the economic situation and the state cutbacks,” said Lynn Kersey, executive director of Los Angeles-based Maternal and Child Health Access. “What’s going to happen during health reform is of extreme interest.”
April 7, 2011
That’s the secret that Southern California parents often learn the hard way, usually as panic sets in a week or so before school ends. Fortunately, space is still available at many local day camps and enrichment programs, including some offered by Los Angeles County.
Here’s just a sample of L.A.’s many options. Sign up soon—summer will be here any day.
–Adventures in Nature Day Camp at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is still open to kids from kindergarten to sixth grade between July 11 and August 12, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Activities range from astronomy to trips to the La Brea Tar Pits. Kim Kessler, who is handling camp registration, says a few of the weeks are sold out for younger children, but most still have space—for the moment. Each week costs $250 per child for museum members, $300 for non-members. Click here to get your little nature lover in on the action or call 213-763-3348.
–The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s popular summer art camp for children filled up within 24 hours after registration opened this year. But if your young artists are teenagers, they’re still in luck. LACMA offers four workshops for teenagers, and they still have openings. Weeklong classes run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in digital photography, mixed media or painting. A month-long workshop focuses on building an art portfolio. Shorter workshops cost $200 a week for members and $225 for non-members. The longer workshop costs $650 for members and $750 for non-members. Click here for an enrollment form or enroll at the museum box office at 323-857-6010. Questions? Call 323-857-6139.
–There’s still room, for the moment, at the Los Angeles County Arboretum’s popular Summer Nature Camp, which offers full or half-days, with extended care starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m. Kids aged 5-10 can plant trees, learn to cook from the garden, do arts and crafts, learn about bugs or just explore the Arboretum’s lush 127 acres in Arcadia. The camp runs in one-week sessions from June 3 through Aug. 12. Full-day sessions are $300 a week for members and $335 for non-members; half-day sessions are $150 and $168, respectively. Need more information? Click here or call Ted Tegart, youth education coordinator, at 626-821-5897. Or sign up at 626-821-4623.
–The Mountains Restoration Trust offers yet another day camp for little nature lovers in the Santa Monica Mountains, operated from the 1896 Calabasas farmhouse that now houses the non-profit’s nature center. Susan Haugland, project manager for youth programs, says the Discovery Nature Camp, for kids 8-12, is particularly hands on, with lots of cool guests speakers, field trips and appearances by skunks that can do the moonwalk. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and a weeklong session costs $260. Enrollment is capped at 18 children per week, but registration just opened. Sign up at 818-591-1701 x212.
–The Dolphin Camp and other water awareness camps offered in the past by the county’s Departments of Beaches and Harbors were cancelled this year due to budget issues. But the Los Angeles County Junior Lifeguard Program is still alive and well, sponsored by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The summer program, offered in half-day morning or afternoon sessions, instructs kids in ocean skills from swimming and surfing to water safety. It’s open to kids aged 9-17 who pass a swim test; pre-registration begins April 25 for the May 7 test in Manhattan Beach. The 5-week program starts June 27. Last year the fee for the summer-long program was $420, but a $56 increase is pending before the Board of Supervisors. For more information, click here or contact the Junior Lifeguard Office at 310-939-7214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Registration opens May 3 for the summer day camp at the county’s El Cariso Park in Sylmar, which is open to kids aged 6-12. The camp starts July 1 and lasts until the Friday before school starts in September and—working parents will like this—it goes from 7:30 am to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. There’ll be field trips, arts and crafts, computer classes and outdoor playtime, plus swimming and sports fundamentals. The price is right, too: $65 a week, plus a $20 registration fee. Sign up at the park office next to Mission College at 13100 Hubbard St. in Sylmar, or call 818-367-7050.
– Want to make a movie? This summer, the William S. Hart Park and Museum and Los Angeles County Arts Commission will offer a free three-day filmmaking workshop for kids aged 10-17. Students will learn about filmmaking, theater, and storytelling, as well as the legacy of local silent film star William S. Hart, as they create their own silent film. The workshop will be taught by instructors from the Canyon Theatre Guild and the CalArts Community Arts Partnership. Space is limited and applications are required. Hours will be 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on July 23, July 30, and August 6. For more information, call 213-202-5858.
–Does a short course in horn playing, tap dancing or classical piano sound fun? The Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles is offering summer camps in all three. The Colburn Academy Festival, a 2-week program, is limited to highly gifted young pianists, but the Tap Intensive, at the school’s downtown Studio B at 200 S. Grand Avenue is open to beginning, intermediate and advanced hoofers from 7-19 during the week of June 27-July 1. And the Horn Camp, a 4-day workshop, is open to horn players of all ages. Need more information? Call 213-621-1085 for the Tap Intensive, 213-621-4554 for the Horn Camp or click here for the piano program.
–The Hollywood Bowl doesn’t do camps, but it does offer a great summer outing for kids and parents (or day care providers) weekday mornings from July 5 to August 12. For just $7 per ticket, kids can watch a concert in the museum patio area, do some fine arts activities and make a morning of it. Or bring a picnic lunch and stay into the afternoon. The Summer Sounds Series will feature classical Korean music for the first two weeks, gospel music for the second two weeks and Irish dance and music for the final two weeks. Click here for more information. Tickets go on sale May 14.
March 6, 2011
Back in September, the Department of Public Social Services began fighting hunger where it lives by using a mobile unit to help people sign up for food assistance. During the the next few weeks, it’ll be headed into Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.
The Health and Nutrition Mobile Services Unit essentially is a traveling DPSS office, complete with computers and staffers to help with paperwork. Its mission is a crucial one, especially in these challenging economic times.
Only about half of eligible county households currently are enrolled in the CalFresh program, formerly known as food stamps. This means government funds are going untapped and families are going without help to meet their basic nutritional requirements.
The Mobile Services Unit has begun to make a dent in the disparity. It has distributed more than 700 applications, with 430 of them being returned as of last week.
Although its primary work is to bring CalFresh to those who need it, the unit also will offer other services, including help with Medicaid applications. Various community groups are providing the venues for the DPSS truck and supplying their own services.
This month, the Health and Nutrition Mobile Services Unit will be in the Third District at three locations. They are:
Friday, April, 8, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Los Angeles City College – Mini Resource Event
4311 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, 90029
Wednesday, April 20 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Van Nuys Worksource Center – La Mission College
11623 Glenoaks Blvd., Pacoima, 91331
Saturday, April 30 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Canoga Park Farmers Market & Community Health Fair – at the Community Center
7428 Owensmouth Ave., Canoga Park, 91303
January 12, 2011
Today, she’s at the helm of one of the county’s most challenged departments, one with a mission second to none: saving kids’ lives.
As the newly appointed interim director of the Department of Children and Family Services, Jimenez has been thrust into a job in which leadership decisions can have enormous real life consequences, with every wrong move getting a very public airing.
Jimenez is just two weeks into the job but already is confronting longstanding trouble spots and dishing out straight talk about what’s wrong—and right—with the department she’s been charged with running since the reassignment of former director Trish Ploehn.
“You have great, great social workers,” Jimenez said in her first in-depth interview since taking the interim director’s job. “I don’t think there’s a lack of talent there. But within that are the mediocre ones who never should have been social workers in the first place.”
Such “problem workers” figured into a review of the department that Jimenez oversaw before assuming her new post. That analysis, released in November, also found: significant backlogs in cases requiring emergency responses; time-consuming and often unfocused mandatory training sessions for administrators, and a welter of “duplicative or contradictory” policies that make it harder for social workers to do their jobs effectively.
Jimenez—who says she’s not permanently pursuing the top job—is realistic about what she can fix as an interim director.
“I’m very honest with the staff. Kids will die, unfortunately…But no kid should die because we haven’t done our job,” she says.
Jimenez, 49, was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Manhattan and had a two-decade career in Massachusetts state government and several years in the private sector before county CEO William T Fujioka hired her in September as a $215,000-a-year deputy CEO.
As the deputy coordinating and overseeing issues involving children and families, Jimenez didn’t have the luxury of slowly breaking in. She found herself on the front lines of the internal turmoil and public outrage stemming from a series of highly publicized deaths of children who’d had earlier contact with DCFS.
Now that she’s on the inside, she recognizes even more the urgency of getting up to speed.
“You always have a learning curve,” she says. “I have done this little listening tour, and I need to do more.” Doing more includes additional ride-alongs with social workers and observing department hotline and command post operations up close.
One of her top priorities, she says, is to tackle a backlog of emergency cases that have not received action for more than 30 or even 60 days, despite the potential dangers this poses to children. She plans to increase staffing in the seven regional offices with the highest backlogs—particularly in three that account for 50% of the overall total. Jimenez says she’s not only reassigning and transferring employees, but also bringing in “experienced temps” for 120 days “to really focus on this problem.”
In the next few weeks, she’ll also be focusing on the hotline, the first point of contact with the department when a child’s safety is at risk.
She says she will examine staffing levels and the experience of hotline employees, with the aim of making sure that calls that need prompt attention get it and are not placed behind those that can wait a little longer. The goal: “We deal with ‘immediate’ immediately.”
Jimenez, who’s living in Redondo Beach with a friend until she can find the time to get her own place, understands that someone in such a sensitive position must take strong action and cannot simply be a caretaker until a permanent replacement is found. (Read Zev’s blog on what he believes the department needs in a new leader.)
Jimenez acknowledges that the upheaval in the department, culminating with Ploehn’s departure, has been tough on the staff. But it’s also been difficult for her, she says.
“I didn’t come to Los Angeles to remove a director. That wasn’t my job,” she says. “The transition for them, the transition for me, was also hard.”
December 21, 2010
No doubt, millions of viewers nationwide thought Ron Artest was simply having another Ron Artest moment.
The NBA veteran had long been known for his slightly—or largely—off-kilter comments and behavior on and off the court, including a violent charge into the stands in Detroit and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in just his boxers.
So when an ABC reporter asked the first-year Los Angeles Laker for a comment just minutes after he’d sparked his team to a Game 7 triumph over the Boston Celtics, he let loose with a winner. He thanked his psychiatrist.
Yes, it was indeed a Ron Artest moment—but one that he says was premeditated and timed for maximum impact to let people know—especially the young people out there—that therapy had helped him work through many difficult chapters in his life. “I was doing it for a good reason,” he says of his expression of gratitude. “I didn’t know what was going to happen but I wanted it to take off.”
And take off it did.
Artest’s remark quickly set in motion an unusual collaboration that led on Tuesday to the debut of a public service announcement from Los Angeles County’s Department of Mental Health. (See video below.) Called “You Can Do It,” the spot features Artest on the court and was produced by the Hollywood executive behind the movie “The Soloist,” the story of L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez’s relationship with homeless musician Nathaniel Ayres.
Artest openly credits an array of therapists and counselors with helping him relax and mature during a career that, for a time, brought him more notoriety than respect. He’s seen marriage counselors and parenting experts and therapists who specialize in the pressure-packed world of professional sports.
Artest says he also knows from growing up in the rougher neighborhoods of Queens how easy it is to be swept up in the criminal life or to simply lose your way in a family that is broken or abusive. “Some kids,” Artest says, “aren’t as mentally tough.”
This is the audience that the player and the mental health department hope to reach in the public service announcement, filmed last month at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. (See photo gallery and extended video interview with Artest below.)
Orchestrating the effort for the county has been clinical psychologist Dr. Alysa Solomon. She says that the minute she heard Artest give a shout-out to his “psychiatrist” (actually a psychologist), she dove for her Blackberry to e-mail her boss, mental health director Dr. Marvin J. Southard. “I was overexcited,” she says. “It was a universal jaw dropping moment.”
For nearly two years, Solomon had been leading the mental health agency’s “social inclusion” campaign, underwritten by California’s so-called Millionaires’ Tax and aimed at ending the stigma that too often stops people from seeking the psychological help they need. One way to do that, she thought, was to recruit celebrities who’d be willing to be interviewed by her about their own mental health issues—new territory for a department steeped in a culture of confidentiality.
First up was actor Tom Arnold, who has spoken widely of his battle with drug addiction and his life in recovery. The interview was filmed but lawyers for the actor blocked it from being seen, Solomon says, because the legal paperwork didn’t make clear that the county could not profit from the effort. “Our county counsel is not an entertainment law firm,” she says. “But we learned the process.”
In the meantime, Solomon had begun developing a friendship with violinist Ayres, who by then was receiving services from the mental health department. Solomon thought Ayres and Lopez would be perfect for the anti-stigma campaign. So she reached out to “The Soloist’s” producer. In him, she found a kindred spirit and a savvy ally.
From the earliest days of “The Soloist’s” journey from a book by Lopez to the big screen, producer Gary Foster was committed to infusing it with a sense of authenticity by shooting scenes in the heart of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Although Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx would be the marquee names, the supporting cast would be the people of the streets.
“We thought it would be wrong to just be the circus that came to town and exploit what was going on down there,” explains Foster, who says the movie’s real-life characters were paid for their performances.
Throughout the filming, Foster and others involved with the project spent days in the teeming courtyard of a Skid Row housing and mental health agency called Lamp Community. There, he got to know the human beings behind Los Angeles’ homeless statistics and their daunting challenges with mental health. After his movie disappeared from theaters, Foster remained passionate about ways to communicate the need for psychological care to sufferers in all strata of society. He took a seat on Lamp’s board.
When Solomon pitched her idea for public service announcements, Foster says, it was a natural—“a great way for me to use my skills to further the mission.” Among other things, he’d know who to tap for help, such as Mob Scene Creative + Productions, an award winning entertainment marketing company that would take the lead in making the PSA.
But the anticipated starting lineup would need to be changed, with Ayres and Lopez taking a seat on the bench, thanks to Artest’s out-of-the-blue post-game comment and a highly publicized appearance at an East L.A. school, where he encouraged the kids to seek counseling if they were having troubles in their lives.
“Ron fell into our lap,” says Solomon, who was thrilled because of the athlete’s natural appeal to a demographic the mental health department had targeted—young teenage boys who might be too embarrassed or afraid to reveal their psychological struggles.
By mid-September, a short script had been jointly created by officials in the mental health department and advocates in the community. They dreamed of hearing Artest say: “I got help and got better, you can get better too. Take that first step and be a champion!”
Foster and Solomon then sent an e-mail to Artest’s publicist and friend, Heidi Buech, saying they’d “be honored to have Ron participate in our PSA program.” Within 24 hours, he was on board.
“Here’s one of the most unique celebrities in Los Angeles sports and he’s brave enough to talk about his personal life,” Foster says. “I think it’s going to have great therapeutic effect.”
Artest, for his part, says the decision was easy.
“People need to be educated,” he says of those who denigrate the value of talking to professionals. “People think you’re crazy or weak but that’s not true.” More specifically, he says, “I’m trying to help build confidence and a support system for kids that don’t have one.”
Although he wanted to create a bit of a stir by thanking his Houston-based sports therapist after the NBA finals, he says he never intended to be “one of the faces of the movement.” He says he “inherited” it.
“Once I said what I said, it was like, wow!”
And there’s more to come.
On Christmas night, Artest will announce the winner of a raffle for his first and only championship ring. The proceeds from “Win My Bling,” which amount so far to almost $600,000, will go to a number of mental health charities and to Artest’s Xcel University, a foundation he established to help at-risk kids build self respect and overcome their difficult environments.
Then in February, he’ll be headed to Washington D.C. to testify on behalf of HR 2531, a bill sponsored by Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Ca.) that is aimed at boosting mental health services in schools.
“It’s like going into the NBA,” he says. “I never dreamed I’d be in the NBA. And I never dreamed I’d be going to The Hill. Ever.”
And that’s something to talk about.
The Ron Artest/ Los Angeles County public service announcement.http://zev.lacounty.gov/videos/RAP_BeAChampion30_TEXTED_FINAL_HD-Fixed.f4v
An extended interview of Artest by Dr. Alysa Solomon of the mental health department.
A photo gallery from the PSA filming in El Segundo.
December 16, 2010
It’s the most wonderful time of the year – or so the song goes. But stress, loneliness and other unwelcome feelings can also be as ubiquitous as red-nosed reindeer during the holidays. So what can you do if “merry and bright” isn’t exactly summing up your December?
In preparation for the season, we checked in with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and its medical director, Dr. Roderick Shaner.
For most people, he says, the sources of holiday stress “seem to boil down to a couple of big things: One is concern about fellowship and being lonely. And the other is the set of expectations we have, both for the holidays and for ourselves.”
So what can you do to manage the blues and the expectations? Here’s Dr. Shaner’s advice:
1. Cut yourself some slack in the holiday spirit department.
“Unless you’re up at the North Pole making presents,” he says, “probably between 99.99% and 100% of the population experience stress around the holidays.” Feeling compelled to have the “right” frame of mind can be its own sort of holiday oppression. If your mood isn’t great, hey, you’re not alone — it’s an epidemic. Bad moods don’t get better by being taken too seriously.
2. Remember what people actually want for Christmas.
“We all remember those perfect holidays we had a long time ago, that weren’t so perfect in retrospect,” Dr. Shaner says with a laugh. “And we see in the media all these idealized versions of what we’re supposed to be in the holidays — happy, calm, making everyone feel special. Well, there are no perfect holidays. Our idealized versions are just that.” Buying into all those “shoulds”, he says, just puts you at risk of overextending yourself financially, socially, physically and emotionally — and unnecessarily. “What the people in our lives want most from us is just to see us, and know we love them, and that we have ties to them.”
3. Get real.
“Think realistically about what you’re going to be doing around the holidays, and about what you can and can’t do in terms of scheduling,” Dr. Shaner says. “Make a budget. Make some pre-holiday resolutions about the degree to which you will watch what you eat and drink, how much sleep you’ll get, how much work you’ll do. Recognize that you’ll need good rest, a reasonable schedule of exercise. And then recognize that the holidays are a time when you’ll want to give yourself a little more leeway, and resolve not to beat yourself up.”
4. Look ahead.
“We’re not going to become someone different in the last two weeks of the holiday season, but one way of dealing with the pressure of expectations is to focus on the future,” says Dr. Shaner. So think about where you want to be in the coming year. There’s a reason New Year’s resolutions are a tradition. “It’s a way to recognize not only our limitations, but also our potential. We remember that we’re all works in progress, and that makes us more hopeful and probably happier as well.”
“This is the kind of season in which human ties are most important,” says Dr. Shaner. “When we lose those, it’s easy to drift into despair.” Connect with your family. So what if the folks back home will complain that you haven’t called in six months? Or that you must admit to them that your love life or resume or show business prospects aren’t what you’d hoped for? “Your family and friends can lift your spirits, just as you’ve lifted theirs with your call,” notes Dr. Shaner. If family isn’t an option, try connecting with friends, community groups or neighbors. If seeing someone in person isn’t feasible, send cards. Or texts. Or Facebook greetings. “Actually a lot of what therapy is is helping people reach out,” says the doctor. “People think that isn’t enough, but it often is.”
6. Do something nice for someone.
“Rates of suicide and depression are higher during the holidays, and this is especially true of the poor and the homeless,” he says. “This is the time when those people are most in need of outreach and social inclusion.” You don’t have to do a lot — sometimes even a smile or a season’s greeting is plenty. But, he adds, being nice also happens to be one of the nicest things you can do for your own emotional well being. “Reaching out to people who may be more lonely and isolated is also one of the best ways to combat our own loneliness and isolation.” Ask any volunteer — serving a meal at a soup kitchen, hanging out for an afternoon with someone who’s sick or shut-in, pitching in at your place of worship or local food bank, even donating blood or giving to a good cause can make you feel surprisingly fabulous.
7. Get help if you need it.
When flu season rolls around, you get a flu shot. You call a doctor when you can’t get rid of that cold. If you’re prone to asthma or diabetes, you get regular check-ups. Mental health is just as important. Plus, it’s one of the best forms of preventative medicine on the market. So see somebody. If your insurance doesn’t cover what you need, there are teaching clinics, nonprofits, therapists who work on a sliding scale and counselors who work with faith-based organizations. Don’t know where to start? Try the Department of Mental Health’s new resource page, or its access line at (800) 854-7771. Thinking about investing in yourself for Christmas? L.A. has some of the best therapists in the country. More serious concerns? L.A.’s Suicide Prevention Center Hotline — (877) 727-4747 — has been in business for more than a half-century. “Our community has many resources that can be helpful,” says Dr. Shaner, “but ironically, it’s the stress and worry itself that often keeps people from them.”
November 19, 2010
It was a long time ago, but when Bob McKinnon traces the successful trajectory of his life—his Madison Avenue advertising career, the creation of his own boutique firm—he thinks about food stamps.
He remembers how they helped him eat better so he could study harder. His mom, a single mother of three, had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and needed help from the government to steady her family during the rough patches.
But McKinnon also remembers the way some people denigrated that helping hand, calling it a handout “for people who are lazy or aren’t trying.” And, in that regard, not much has changed over the years. The stigma lingers. Only now, McKinnon, 41, is in the forefront of a movement in California to do something about it.
McKinnon, the founder of a public-spirited communications and advocacy firm in New York, was enlisted to help California rebrand its food stamp program in the hopes of undoing decades of negative stereotypes and encouraging eligible participants to step forward and sign up.
In October, California’s food stamp program officially became known as “CalFresh: Better Food for Better Living.” The name—and accompanying logo—followed months of consumer research, strategy sessions, stakeholder meetings and focus groups from Merced to San Bernardino, comprised of low-income Californians receiving assistance or eligible for it.
“Looking back, to think that at some point my mom had to feel badly for even a second to help us, bothers me to do this to this day,” says McKinnon, whose company, YellowBrickRoad, specializes in “advocacy communications” on issues ranging from childhood obesity to climate change. “Do critics of these programs really think people don’t want to feel pride?”
The rebranding process began two years ago, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed the name of the food stamp program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The change was made to reflect the reality that food stamps and scrip were abandoned years ago in favor of electronic debit cards. The federal government told the states they could adopt the same name for their programs or come up with new ones.
California seized the challenge like no other—for good reason.
The state’s 3 million food assistance recipients represent just half of those eligible for the benefits. Only Wyoming has a worse record. As a result, California has been missing out on an estimated $4.9 billion in federal nutrition assistance that would flow through the state’s ailing economy. The program pays a monthly benefit of $200 for an individual and $526 for a household of three.
The California legislature, with a strong push from Oakland-based California Food Policy Advocates, passed a bill in 2008 by Assemblyman Jim Beall, Jr. that not only called for the creation of a new name but also lifted asset restrictions that effectively required some applicants to exhaust virtually their entire net worth to qualify.
“One of the things we wanted be clear about is that we didn’t want to put a new name on an old program,” says George Manalo-LeClair, senior director of legislation for CFPA, which assured lawmakers that no public money would be spent on the process. “We recognized that this was not the No. 1 priority for the state.”
To research and test potential names for the state’s Department of Social Services, The California Endowment stepped in with a grant of $150,000, enough to cover some of the costs of YellowBrickRoad and Lake Research Partners, which conducted the focus groups.
Manalo-LeClair says his group and others were determined to come up with a name that would resonate positively with potential participants, many of whom have been hit hard by the economy but could not see themselves applying for food stamps. The idea was to create branding that stressed the nutritional, rather than the welfare, aspects of the program.
California officials, Manalo-LeClair says, didn’t want to follow the path of the federal government, which “took words that the House liked and that the Senate liked and squished them together.” The result, he says, was a name that focus groups agreed conjured up images of a welfare program with “long lines and hassles.”
It was during these sessions, as interviewers asked participants to offer words that suggested healthy eating, that “fresh” first surfaced. Many involved in the process liked that it worked on two levels—fresh, as in fresh food, and fresh, as in “you’ve hit rock bottom and need a fresh start,” as McKinnon put it.
Some within the bureaucracy, however, weren’t nearly as thrilled when presented with the proposed CalFresh name. They thought it was vague and confusing. Without the tag line, it didn’t even allude to the program’s key aspirations—to provide food and help. How would people know even to apply?
“When you’re dealing with government stakeholders, they want to come up with a lot of acronyms,” McKinnon responds. “But you’ve got to ask: Who is our audience? We need to make sure that the name appeals to them first. To us, a little bit of abstraction was perfectly acceptable so people could see themselves in the program.”
But the criticisms from the insiders, who were concerned about the program’s success, were mild compared to those that came after California’s first lady Maria Shriver unveiled the rebranding during a media event in Long Beach. Conservative radio hosts and bloggers feasted on the change.
Typical among them was this from self-proclaimed “Advice Goddess” blogger Amy Alkon, the author of a recent book bemoaning the lack of civility in American life : “Sorry, but there should be a stigma against using food stamps…My parents raised us to think it was shameful not to support yourself.”
Food advocates in and out of government seethe when they hear intentionally provocative off-the-cuff takes like these, which misrepresent the demographics of those receiving help and the impact of the nation’s economic meltdown on working families. The fact is that children represent roughly half of the recipients.
“Someone with an opinion like that might lose their job tomorrow and then need food assistance themselves,” says Judith Lilliard, who oversees the food stamp program for Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Social Services. “We’re trying to build a healthy society here. We don’t want people starving in the streets because they’re embarrassed to apply for food stamps.”
To that end, Lilliard’s department has been a leader in streamlining the application process, allowing people to sign-up by mail, phone and, soon, through the Internet. The county also recently began a mobile service, dispatching a computer-outfitted truck into neighborhoods with high numbers of eligible participants.
Underlying all these efforts, Lilliard says, is recognition by the county that many of the working poor will not enter a government building to apply for food assistance because they feel it’s humiliating.
Lilliard, like McKinnon, knows something about that feeling.
In the mid-1960s, she grew up in housing projects in East L.A. and low-rent apartments in South-Central. She remembers tagging along with her mom to pick up the family’s food stamps, which back then were distributed by banks. The recipients were told to line up outside at a walk-up teller.
“I remember thinking, “This is not right. Why are we out here when they have a perfectly good building,’ ” Lilliard says. “The bank felt that people getting food stamps weren’t good enough to go inside the building.”
Lilliard says that, over the years, she’s held a variety of positions within her department’s general relief and food stamp division. (“We’ll be renaming that soon, by the way.”) But it was her pre-teen years that Lilliard says have given her a special qualification for her job as division chief—empathy.
“I’m good at being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes,” she says, “because I’ve been there myself.”
November 3, 2010
Two weeks ago, in an effort to find possible trends in the tragic deaths of youngsters who’d come to the attention of Los Angeles County child welfare officials, the Board of Supervisors asked for data on fatalities dating back two decades.
On Wednesday, however, a clearly angry Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the board would be lucky to get useful information from just two years ago, calling the data collection efforts of the Department of Children and Family Services “a colossal mess.”
Yaroslavsky said the Chief Executive Office has expressed concerns that the historical information may not even be available. This, Yaroslavsky said, “begs the question: What is the Department of Children and Family Services basing any of its policies on when it comes to protecting children’s lives?”
The supervisor’s remarks came during yet another debate—and more motions—involving the performance of DCFS, which has come under withering criticism in the wake of numerous child deaths and the department’s failure to publicly disclose some of them.
One of the motions, approved by the board during its Wednesday meeting, called for a single county entity to track and compile information on child deaths related to abuse or neglect. Another motion called for the reversal of the board’s earlier request for 20 years of fatality data in the belief that it’s better to look forward than back.
But the board majority disagreed. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who had co-authored the motion for historical information with colleague Michael D. Antonovich, said that without such data, “the best you do is find yourself being driven by the anecdotal rather than analytical.”
Acting on a compromise suggested by Yaroslavsky, the board scaled back its request to10 years. Although the department may be unable to generate even that data, Yaroslavsky said, the effort should still be aggressively pursued in the spirit of transparency for a public that “is livid” with the county, from the top down.
If the information isn’t available, then “the public ought to know that the Department of Children and Family Services can’t respond to that kind of fundamental question,” he said. “But to just pull out and say, ‘Never mind. We don’t really want to do that,’ is not the way I want to do business.”
He added: “I think we should stop being defensive about this and just let the chips fall where they may.”