CITYWIDE — Few could argue that City Hall and the multitude of nonprofits that function here ignore the needs of the youngest members of the community.
There exist programs for every kind of age group, problem area and demographic, which tend to pop up like mushrooms after a rain when a major act of violence or tragedy occurs.
But those efforts remain uncoordinated, often duplicating services. They can be difficult to access, forcing children in need to seek help elsewhere if they do not meet a batch of criteria specific to the organization.
Lisa Golden, a psychologist and member of the Parent Teacher Association, estimated that there are four or five mental health agencies providing services at Santa Monica High School alone, although some will turn students away simply because they have insurance.
Situations like Golden described are being targeted by the Youth Resource Team, a group commissioned by the City Council in September 2010 to address what some see as a convoluted and failed system attempting to care for young people in Santa Monica.
The mission: To create the most effective youth and family support system in the country, so that Santa Monica and its nonprofits can spend their resources wisely to create substantive improvements in the area of youth violence, and become the yardstick by which other communities measure their own success.
To a degree, the plight of Santa Monica’s youth seems to be a silent problem to rank and file civilians.
In a community survey released in April, concern over gangs and youth violence has dropped to an all-time low, with only 14 percent of the 407 respondents ranking it as a high priority. For another 55 percent, it didn’t register.
In contrast, in 2007, 31 percent of respondents said that they were concerned about youth violence and gangs in Santa Monica.
However, since 1989, 40 young people between the ages of 15 and 25 have been shot to death in Santa Monica, said school board member and team participant Oscar de la Torre.
“Ask any mother who has lost a child to homicide or gun violence. That family is permanently affected by the trauma caused by youth violence,” de la Torre said.
Violence can take other, less extreme forms. High achieving students break under the pressure of advanced coursework and extracurricular activities, and those labeled “at risk” who balance the stress of poverty with violence, drugs and alcohol.
A large number languish in the middle, not performing to their potential, but obscured by the more evident needs of the kids on the extreme ends of the spectrum.
Although many agencies exist to try to fix pieces of the problem, the bigger picture gets lost, said Julie Rusk, Santa Monica’s director of Human Services.
“We suffer from everybody pulling their own boat,” she said. “We’re trying to get people to leverage what they do so it’s more connected and the community is aware of the services that are out there.”
In response, Rusk’s department and a 28 other community leaders have come together under the umbrella of the Youth Resource Team to hash out priorities and roles and ensure that children of all ages get the support that they need, from a family-focused approach when young to drug or violence counseling when they mature.
Since September, the team has been meeting monthly, first to set goals for its work, and now to create benchmarks of success, indicators that can be easily measured to give a sense of whether or not the programs are working.
Coordinating the groups, most of which are focused on a very narrow band of issues and clientele, can be a challenge.
“OK, we understand that preventing youth violence is really about creating a strong network of youth and family development in our community,” Rusk said. “We know we have a lot of strong nonprofits and effective programs doing work, we’re just not as sure what we’re doing is comprehensive and integrated.”
One of the main difficulties is overcoming legal hurdles surrounding the children’s confidentiality.
“On a practical level, to service kids, you need to know who they are,” Golden said. She represents the PTA Council on the Youth Resource Team.
Different agencies have funding sources that come with criteria, some of which surround the kinds of services they should provide, and others the amount of information that can be shared.
“We need an understandable grid, a map of what do we have, where do we go and a system for communicating that is appropriate and respects the limits of individual confidentiality,” Golden said.
By summer, the team plans to present a full list of recommendations of priorities and streamlining options to the City Council, which will be used to coordinate efforts, but also funding.
That underlying question of funds is an ever-present elephant in the room said Barrie Levy, a consultant for the Westside Domestic Violence Center.
Although Levy is not directly involved in the Youth Resource Team, her program does have a representative pushing for the inclusion of a component addressing the culture of male violence as a method of cutting down on domestic abuse.
In a time of funding cuts and budget slashing, participation in an effort billed to the City Council at its April 12 meeting as a way to respond to hard times through collaboration can feel like signing your own death warrant.
“The goal is to take all those little pieces and make one picture, but everyone has competing needs,” Levy said.
Nevertheless, the groups involved are putting forth a heroic effort to achieve the vision of an integrated resource, she said, even if no one is quite sure what it will look like when the dust settles.
One thing is for certain — the team will be successful if it can make it easier for children and families to get the help and support they need.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about being able to navigate a complicated world,” Rusk said.