Tag Archives: Burbank Family Service Agency

Family Service Agency to Honor LA County Supervisor Kathyrn Barger

Tonight, October 4th the Family Service Agency of Burbank (FSA) will present an award named for an extraordinary Burbank woman and one of their visionary founding board members, Mary Alice O’Connor to Burbank’s County Supervisor Kathyrn Barger. 

It was Mary Alice’s intention that the award spotlight an individual who shares FSA’s sense of urgency to create and sustain safe spaces where Burbank’s youth, adults, and families can access, without obstacle, mental health counseling, awareness education, prevention programs, and critical advocacy.

FSA was founded 66 years ago for this purpose and never has their mission been more relevant.  In the last 20 years, due to a rare relationship with city’s leadership, FSA has researched, developed, implemented, and sustained a nationally recognized school-based counseling program, 3 long-term transitional homes serving homeless families, foster and emancipated youth, and battered women and their children – and  FSA’s 2 groundbreaking Student CARE Centers located at Burbank and John Burroughs High School campuses.

During the 2018/19 the school year, 1706 students initiated 14,874 visits to our school-based Student CARE Center’s alone seeking life-changing – all too often life-saving support.  Other FSA school-based counseling programs cared for an additional 1611 staff referred to students.  

FSA’s leadership has followed and admired Supervisor Barger’s commitment to mental healthcare over the years, deeply respect her work on behalf of our veterans, foster youth, and the homeless. 

We are all relying on her leadership and on her fierce commitment to creating awareness and access for our teens suffering from feelings of alienation, isolation, anxiety, depression – considering suicide.

It is for these reasons and so many more that… Family Service Agency of Burbank’s Board of Directors is honored to invite you to join them as FSA of Burbank honors Supervisor Kathryn Barger as this year’s 2019 recipient of The Mary Alice O’Connor Vision Award. 

The award will be presented at FSA’s annual Imagine a City  Gala to be held on Friday evening,  October 4th

https://familyserviceagencyofburbank.org/gala

Breaking The Cycle

In 2007, when Irma Avelar and her then five and two-year-old sons moved into Family Service Agency’s Care Cottage, she felt like she was in her favorite television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “When I first got the apartment we had nothing,” she explains, “And when we walked in and it was furnished, I remember feeling like the luckiest person on the planet.”

Avelar’s infectious energy and gratitude helped get her to where she is today, a survivor of domestic violence who has made a career out of helping both victims and perpetrators. “I realize the importance of paying it forward,” says Avelar, “So many people helped me along the way and I know that my personal experience can make a difference for other people who are facing really difficult challenges.”

The road was not an easy one, but Avelar wants victims to recognize that there is hope and there are resources available to help. She’s been there so she knows.

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

When her husband tried to strangle her, she grabbed the closest thing she could get her hands on a broken child’s toy and stabbed him in the arm. She called the police but when they arrived, the bruises on her body had yet to reveal themselves. Officers saw her husband bleeding and arrested her, failing to look in the apartment where furniture was toppled and holes were in the wall. “He was a six-foot-tall bodybuilder,” says Avelar, “Had they looked, they’d have known a 4-foot 11-inch woman couldn’t have done all that.”

Avelar hadn’t told her family or coworkers what was going on. No one could corroborate the abuse she’d endured. But when the bruises showed up on her body while she was in custody, the charges against her were dropped. She had to tread lightly, though, because her young son was in her husband’s custody. She knew the police were picking up the case against her husband, but she didn’t let on when she went home to get her son. “I led him to believe I was still considered the perpetrator,” she explains, “He promised to give me my car and my son if I didn’t press charges against him.”

Her family and friends were surprised as she began to reveal her story, “My husband was the charmer type of perpetrator, the one you could never think would even break a glass,” says Avelar, “He was helpful and kind, but when you lived with him, he was a monster.”

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

The abuse had gone on for years. At first, it was just verbal abuse. He’d yell at her. Tell her she was worthless. But three months after she became pregnant, he started hitting her. The women she worked with thought he was the nicest guy because he’d always bring her flowers at work after a fight. “They’d say ‘He’s so nice, why are you so mean to him?’ but one day I’d had enough,” says Avelar, “I lifted up my shirt and showed them the bruising on my pregnant belly and my coworkers wouldn’t even look at him the next time he came in.”

He said, “You told them didn’t you?”

And Avelar responded, “Yeah, well I’m tired of everyone thinking you’re Mr. Nice Guy when you’re nothing but an abuser.” The beatings didn’t stop but he never came back to her work.

During the next incident, her husband tried to strangle her. This was too much. Avelar spoke with her husband’s ex-wife, expecting hostility, but quickly learned that the abuse was a pattern. Avelar feared for her son. She feared that the cycle would never be broken if she didn’t take steps to end it.

Avelar’s father had died when she was three-years-old and her mother had a string of boyfriends, several who abused her. “I realized I’d blocked that out,” she explains, “I was so worried about my child growing up without a father and having to be bounced around among relatives, like I was, that I didn’t think about the effects of him witnessing abuse.”

But the day her husband strangled her was a turning point. “I felt like either he was going to kill me or I was going to have to kill him and I didn’t want my son to have to live with that either.”

Some of the guilt she had to work through in therapy was cultural, “You’re taught in the Latino community that when you get married, what goes on in your house is nobody’s business,” she explains, “I realize we have to change that perception.”

Like many victims, Avelar didn’t want to go to a shelter. “I’d gone to my mom’s for a week, but she still didn’t understand the severity of my situation,” Avelar explains, “When I returned from a job interview, my husband was there with my son. Because we had a DCSF (Department of Children and Family Services) case going, I feared I’d lose my son if they found out my husband had violated the restraining order.” She realizes that her family may not have understood how the system works. She vowed to take every step necessary to protect her son. That included briefly living in a shelter and even renting a garage in Pacoima. “It was cold and my husband kept trying to get me to come back, but I was determined.”

Leaving can be complicated. Perpetrators can be manipulative. In the midst of her separation and eventual divorce, Avelar had a second child with her now ex-husband. She had, even more, to fight for. “I’m not going to lie, starting all over with children and working full time is hard,” she says, “But I know I am setting a good example for my sons, and that makes everything I’ve gone through worth it.”

Avelar struggles to find stability for herself and her sons. “I was upset because I never wanted to use the welfare system, but it ended up connecting me to all of these other programs that helped me and my children through the aftermath of domestic violence.” That was how she learned of the Family Service Agency of Burbank (FSA).

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

At FSA, Avelar and her older son entered counseling and she joined the victims’ support group. The agency was in the process of developing the CARE Cottages Program to house survivors of domestic violence with the support of Burbank Housing Corporation. Avelar interviewed and became the first resident in the new community.

That was when she had her Extreme Makeover experience. “I was so lucky, and for the first time I realized I really might be able to make it.”

The experience not only gave her hope, it inspired her to makeover the direction of her life. While living in her Care Cottage, she studied addiction and substance abuse at Glendale Community College. Intensive counseling helped her deal with her own childhood trauma. She took parenting classes to ensure she could help her sons break the cycle that plagued both of their parents.

Eleven years later she uses her life experience to help others. She now works three jobs, each using different components of her hard-earned knowledge. From FSA’s comprehensive support services, she uses her abundance of compassion helping veterans and other battered women.
“I remember what it is like to have nothing except one diaper so I’m sensitive to what they are going through and appreciate their courage,” she says through tears of both memory and empathy. It is clear that some of the emotions she felt over a decade ago are still a bit raw. “I left my clothes, my money, my son’s crib and now when I talk to victims, I tell them how important it is to have a safety plan and to make sure you have access to your important papers, to start keeping small important things with a trusted friend, including evidence, family pictures and documents,” she explains, “You have to do it slowly so he doesn’t see that things are missing, but you must do it to take care of yourself.”

Avelar also works with Spanish speaking perpetrators. “I never ever thought I’d work with the perpetrators, but I’ve learned that many of them were experienced domestic violence as children. If we can help them become better men and learn how to deal with family dynamics differently by giving them the tools to be better parents, we may save a child’s life and end the cycle of abuse for the next generation.” Often she says they come in wanting to blame the victim. “A lot of the work we do is holding them accountable.”

She realizes that working with both victims and perpetrators makes her a better counselor overall.
Avelar says she received so much support that she wants to pay it forward. Her inspiration for such work came from FSA’s Christine Ramos, the agency’s former Director of Family Violence Services and Residential Programs, who was once a victim of domestic violence herself. Ramos now serves as FSA’s Assistant Executive Director and remembers the first time she met Avelar, “Irma was all over the place getting things done,” says Ramos, “She had a lot of energy and determination.”

Like Avelar, Ramos’ children were also her catalyst for getting out of her abusive relationship. “The odd part was not that he was controlling me and eventually physically assaulted me, but it was the effect that he was having on the kids that prompted me to leave,” she says, “Once you recognize that it is beyond just you who is being harmed, you can build the courage to get out.”

Also like Avelar, she didn’t know where to look for help, but Ramos was fortunate to have the family she could live with. “I was a stay-at-home mom with no skills,” she says. She called countless service agencies seeking counseling for herself and her children and couldn’t find a place that would help. Though she was living in Arleta at the time, FSA said “Come on in” and she and her children began a year of intensive therapy and healing.

Transitioning out of her domestic violence situation also involved going back to school. Ramos attended Pasadena City College, Los Angeles Valley College, and later went on to UCLA. She completed Domestic Violence Advocacy training and provided volunteer victim assistance through the Domestic Abuse Response Team assisting the LAPD on domestic violence calls.

“I got into this work because at the time I felt that so many of the counselors, emergency personnel, attorneys and judges don’t understand the dynamics and manipulative aspects of domestic abuse,” says Ramos. She now has a deeper understanding of how those systems work. FSA works to assist victims through that process, educating and working with other service providers along the way.

“It is probably impossible for everyone to know all aspects of domestic violence,” says Ramos, “But is we all know our own systems and work together with caring hearts, we can best assist victims and families.”
When Avelar crossed paths with Ramos in 2006, she was grateful to be working with someone who understood what she was going through. “I so admire Chris because she took a horrible situation in her life and turned it into a way to support others,” she says, “I knew pretty early on that once I got on my feet, I wanted to do the same.”

Both women say that if they were able to get out of their abusive situations, so can other victims. The first step is to call the Family Service Agency of Burbank at 818-845-7671 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

In a victim’s first visit to FSA, counselors will assess the lethality of the situation, determine what resources are available, and develop a safety plan if needed. “If they need shelter, we’ll sit with them as they make phone calls,” says Ramos, “We let them know the importance of answering questions that accurately express their need because so many victims are accustomed to downplaying what has happened to them and minimizing the severity of their situation.”

“At the end of the day, it is often women helping other women that makes the difference,” Avelar says, “When you’re going through an abusive situation, you don’t know who you can trust because sometimes when you share your story you are judged for your choices. You have to seek professional help and find a support group that will give you an understanding of the truth.” She further explains, “A lot of women minimize their experience saying ‘But he never hit me’, yes but does he do A, B or C? Yes? Well, then you are a victim.” Physical violence is not the only form of abuse. Victims may experience emotional, verbal, sexual and financial abuse. They experience threats, isolation, and control over their lives.

 “It is hard to reach out when you’re always wondering what is wrong with you or you think you can help fix him,” Ramos adds, “For me, I wanted a complete family. I did not want to be divorced or have my children in two homes, but in the end, that was the healthier thing for all of us.”

Avelar is grateful to live in Burbank because of how people here take care of others in their community. “I love the schools, the counseling available to children on the campuses and the continuing support of FSA,” she explains, “I still call them sometimes when we could use some additional support.”

At FSA’s Care Cottages, survivors of domestic abuse stay with their children an average of three years. Since 2007, twenty-two families have successfully completed the program and none of the victims have gone back to their abusers.

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

Avelar is grateful that the program gave her time to spend in counseling and to find a job. “When you leave after three years you’re like “I can fly now!” she says, “It motivated me because I learned that if I really want something, I can work toward it. This wasn’t just about escaping domestic violence, it was about empowering women and obtaining the tools to be a better parent.”

 “I just want victims to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says Avelar.
 “And people who care, “ adds Ramos.
 
 

 
 
 

 

City of Burbank Honored As Family Service Agency Celebrates 65 Years

(Photo by Ross A Benson)

On Friday evening, October 5, at the outdoor terrace of Burbank’s newly renovated Town Center Mall, 325 guests enjoyed a spectacular sunset and dancing under the stars as they celebrated Family Service Agency’s 65th anniversary at the annual Imagine A City Gala.

Master of Ceremonies, Disney’s Joan McCarthy, ensured the evening was a successful tribute to the agency’s longstanding covenant with the Burbank community, while Marsha Ramos, former Burbank Mayor and FSA Board member, delivered the blessing.  “In a time when so many are divided we came together as one community to reflect and celebrate the immeasurable treasure that is FSA,” said Ramos.

BUSD’s Peggy Flynn and Chris Krohn encouraged donations to help FSA continue their important work in the schools, with veterans, the homeless and with victims of domestic abuse. Sunder Ramani, chair of the Burbank Healthcare Foundation, raised his paddle and committed $50,000 from his organization.

“BHF is pleased to continue our partnership with Family Service Agency in our mutual goal to better community wellness,” said Ramani, “FSA is a trusted source for mental health care and BHF is a trusted foundation to provide financial resources as we all try to help our community heal and grow.”

(Photo by Ross A Benson)

2017 honoree, Michael Cusumano presented this year’s Mary Alice O’Connor Visionary Award to Mayor Emily Gabel-Luddy, who was joined at the podium by City Council members Bob Frutos, Tim Murphy, Sharon Springer and Jess Talamantes. Cusumano highlighted the City’s support of the school-based counseling program that began in 2002 thanks to the groundwork laid by the Mayor’s Youth Task Force. The program, which started on three middle school campuses and at Community Day School, is now providing individual and group care to students on all 19 Burbank Unified School District campuses, impacting over 1000 students each year. FSA has three additional contracts with BUSD:  Counseling and Parent Advocacy for Foster and Homeless Youth, Mental Health Care for the Special Education program and the Student Care Centers at John Burroughs and Burbank High Schools.

“No person or organization has been so crucial to the success of the Family Services Agency as the City of Burbank, and so it is entirely fitting that the City is recognized with the 2018 Mary Alice O’Connor Visionary Award,” said Cusumano. “The city was the first to financially support FSA’s development of school-based counseling, and today school districts from all over the region are coming to Burbank to see how our program is changing students’ lives for the better.”

Back in 2005, when Marsha Ramos was Mayor, the City supported FSA in establishing their first long-term transitional shelter for battered women and their children. Mary Alvord was City Manager and Sue Georgino was heading up the Community Development Department at the time, and they helped ensure that the CARE Cottages became safe and secure homes that continue to change lives today. The success of the Cottages then leads to two additional long-term therapeutic homes – one for homeless families and one for homeless young adults and emancipated youth.

Fifteen years ago, FSA was in many ways “homeless” itself. The Agency did not have a purpose-designed facility for the first 50 years of its existence. But that changed in 2005 when FSA and the City entered into a long-term lease for the agency’s current home on Burbank Boulevard. “That was a game changer for FSA,” said Cusumano, “And it could not have happened without the support of the City of Burbank.”

(Photo by Ross A Benson)

As Cusumano shared, the City of Burbank not only provided much needed financial assistance, but it has provided critical leadership support. Not surprisingly, so many of the community leaders that have been the core leadership of FSA have also been senior management and elected officials of the City of Burbank including Ron Davis and our current council members, to past city stewards such as Marsha Ramos, Gary Bric, Dave Golonski, Mike Flad, Sue Georgino, Mary Alvord, Teri Stein, and Mike Albanese.

Bric generously hosted the bar and served as bartender for the evening while Alvord and Stein joined Chris Krohn, Christine Ramos, Renee Williamson, Sue Hoon, Robin Schwer, Sara Sherman, Pat Smola, and FSA Executive Director Laurie Bleick on the Gala committee. Platinum sponsors for the evening were The Walt Disney Company, The Cusumano Family and Cartoon Network Studios.

(Photo by Ross A Benson)

BUSD’s support for student mental health care was evident with Superintendent Dr. Matt Hill, and Board of Education members Dr. Roberta Reynolds, Dr. Armond Aghakhanian, Stever Fritner, and Charlene Tabet on hand to celebrate FSA’s commitment to Burbank’s children. State Senator Anthony Portantino and State Assemblywoman Laura Friedman also shared in the celebration with pride in the important work being done in their districts.

“The City of Burbank can take great pride in the success of the Family Services Agency and the important role that it has played in our community for the past 65 years,” said Cusumano. The evening proved that FSA has many supporters as the Agency remains committed to expanding to meet the mental health care needs of Burbank’s students, individuals, and families.

Burbank Models Student-Centered Mental Health Care

When Meera Varma was a junior at Burbank High School, she began to have debilitating panic attacks that left her feeling exhausted, embarrassed and terrified to go to school. Crippling depression followed and she knew she had to tell someone outside her family.

Burbank High Wellness Center. ( Photo by Ross A Benson)

“My peers and I didn’t talk about mental health much,” says Varma, “However, I always recognized in them a sense of anxiety, stress and an overwhelming pressure to do well.”

Varma first visited the Student Care Center (formerly called the Wellness Center) at school shortly after Family Service Agency opened the space during her sophomore year. “At first I was nervous to seek help and feared a lack of confidentiality,” she explains, “But over time, I got over that fear and realized that the professionals at the center are there to help me and will not share any information without my consent.”

Varma was impressed with the staff at the Student Care Center and their active efforts to help those needing guidance and support. By the time she was a Senior, she visited the Student Care Center at least once a week. “My teachers understood that I was struggling with severe depression that was extremely debilitating,” Varma says, “They all fully supported me being able to go to the Center without seeking permission. It was understood that if I left class arbitrarily, I was going to seek help at the Wellness Center.”

Burbank High School Principal Mike Bertram recognizes the importance of self-referrals by students. “One of my strongest beliefs in how we treat students is to give them independence,” he says, “I think having the access and not standing in their way gives them the freedom to self-advocate and to take advantage of the resources we provide.”

Bertram says his staff is supportive. “All the students have to do is say something to someone and they get directed toward the Center. “ He sees students making meaningful connections with staff as well as young people looking out for one another and encouraging friends to seek help.

Therapy has helped Varma appreciate the small things in life that make her happy. “I see now that life comes in waves and that I have to learn to ride those waves,” she says, “I now realize my worth, potential, significance and the impact I have on those in my life.”  This week she begins her freshman year at UCLA where she is studying psychology and will be continuing with her therapy.

(Photo by Ross A Benson)

She hopes all students at her former High School recognize that they are not alone. “I know how difficult it is to open up to someone and be put in that position of vulnerability, but there are people who care about you and love you for you,” says Varma, “The Student Care Centers have people who can support you. It is never shameful to ask for help.”

Family Service Agency opened the Student Care Center at Burbank High School in 2016 as part of a partnership with Burbank Unified School District and the City of Burbank. “The idea for the Student Care Centers was over a decade in the making,” explains FSA Executive Director Laurie Bleick, “And when Michael Bertram called and said, ‘I’ve got a room’ our agency worked quickly to turn that vision into a reality.”

FSA opened a second center at John Burroughs High School in 2017. Since the start of the 2018-2019 school year, as many as 15-20 new students are visiting each center every day.

Bleick and Bertram recently toured the two centers with a group of educators from Santa Clarita. “Burbank High was one of the first schools to open a Student Care Center on campus,” says Bertram, “But now they are popping up in schools across California with many districts looking to emulate our model.” 

Students are never charged for the services at the school sites. If a young person walks into a Center on campus and it is determined that they need further support at FSA, they can get help for as long as they need it. “So far our resources have allowed us to provide additional therapy whenever it is necessary,” says Bleick, “While that is not part of our school-based service contract, it is just what we do as our commitment to Burbank’s families.”

The Centers are a small but important part of the agency’s work with the young people in Burbank’s public schools. FSA has separate contracts with BUSD to serve the social and emotional needs of special education students, as well as foster and homeless youth.

FSA’s school-based counseling services alone have an estimated clinical value of over $2 million annually. Each year, BUSD invests approximately $130,000 toward the partnership while the City of Burbank contributes $245,000 and FSA raises an additional $175,000.00 each year to help fund the programs. During the 2017-2018 school year, FSA’s 50 school-based therapists provided 12,000 hours of clinical and psycho-educational services at all 19 BUSD campuses.

“In Burbank, we are very fortunate to have a strong partnership with the Family Service Agency, the City of Burbank, and the Burbank Unified School District,” says BUSD Superintendent Dr. Matt Hill, “By working together, we ensure the children of Burbank receive the care and support they need to meet their mental and emotional needs.”

Under Hill’s leadership and with the support of the School Board, BUSD now has a Wellness Department working with district staff to diminish the barriers to mental health services for students, staff, and families. Their goal is to increase awareness and accessibility while reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues.

With FSA staff on call 24/7, there is no time barrier in getting support when needed. “Our strong, committed collective of therapists are always on hand to do whatever is needed to help young people in Burbank,” says Bleick.

Depending on the age of the students, the issues therapists visiting BUSD campuses confront include everything from family difficulties, divorce, peer challenges, dating violence, bullying, transitions, substance use, and abuse, learning disabilities, and suicide. They try to focus on prevention through education.

FSA Wellness Center at Burroughs. (Photo by © Ross A. Benson)

One member of the FSA team is Ginny Goodwin, Director of School-based Counseling Services, who helped launch the Elementary counseling program in 2008. “Initially parents were suspicious and there was the stigma surrounding the need for a therapist,” says Goodwin, “They would ask with concern ‘Why was my kid referred?’ and I’d have to explain that we were only there to help.”

Today she finds that parents are grateful for the support. “Parents are raising their hands and saying, ‘Pick me! When can we start?’” says Goodwin. “We’ve developed a relationship with the school community that is one of care and camaraderie.”

Building that bridge in the relationship with a family is Goodwin’s favorite part of her job. “People are more open because they know we may have an answer or an idea about something that may help them or their family,” she explains, “It is a privilege to be part of the process as people’s lives are mended and healed.”

“I think parents and children feel cared for. It’s like a warm blanket and they know they can trust our confidentiality.” And the best part according to Goodwin? “We get to see the results afterward.”

“I have been referring students and families to FSA for over twenty years,” says Hallie Fleishman, school counselor at Jordan Middle School. Her experiences in the trenches of with Middle School students have evolved in the past two decades as stresses on students and societal pressures have increased. Some can be directly attributed to social media. “Kids can’t get away from it and can’t stop themselves from looking at it. There is no longer a refuge,” says Fleishman.

She estimates that 30% of Jordan’s population is dealing with challenges ranging from homelessness, family illnesses, custody issues, neglect, and physical or verbal abuse. Her office also helps students with interpersonal, social, emotional, academic, career and college counseling along with crisis intervention.

“At least once a month we have a student attempt suicide,” says Fleishman.

“If the student is already a client of FSA, we seek help from the agency in determining lethality. If the child is not a client, we ask the parent or guardian if they want a referral to FSA for support.”

“We have kids dealing with grief and the loss of parents,” says Fleishman. Beyond suicidal ideations among kids, some young people also have to deal with the mental illness and challenges their parents are facing. “I have students who come into my office and tell me that their parent threatened to take their own life.”

Many students come into Fleishman’s office just to chat. They know her door is always open and behind it is an adult who cares. Other students are hungry and know she has a stash of granola bars. “You’d be surprised by how many young people in our schools are homeless,” she says.

Last year alone, Jordan counselors referred over 100 students to FSA and at least 50 went on to receive longer-term counseling. Fleishman is grateful to have the agency as a partner in the process. She wants all her students to have the tools to overcome their challenges and to be successful in school and in life.

FSA Wellness Cente at Burroughs (Photo by © Ross A. Benson)

While listening to one young girl last year, Fleishman discovered the child was repeatedly

called stupid at home and had come to believe she was. “It was a self-fulfilling prophecy that caused her to act out at school,” says Fleishman, “It is hard for teachers to know what baggage kids come to school carrying that leads them to behave in disruptive ways.”

A child in that situation will not have the support from home to seek help at FSA, so Fleishman is grateful that FSA therapists come into the schools to provide care.

“I feel confident that our services at the schools have impacted learning and behaviors as mental health services do improve performance,” says Goodwin.

For Varma, seeking help from the FSA’s therapists made finishing high school and moving on to college possible. “To this day, I owe them everything,” she says. “I never understood the capability one individual has to impact another person’s life until I decided to ask for help. Asking for help is by far the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Continuing the work that FSA provides in BUSD takes a lot of support. The community is invited to join FSA for their largest fundraising event of the year, the upcoming 65th Anniversary IMAGINE A CITY GALA on October 5 at the Burbank Town Center’s Outdoor Dining Terrace. Tickets are available at https://fsaburbankevents.org/

Opening Doors Toward Brighter Futures for Victims of Domestic Violence

Editor’s Note: With the recent case of Domestic Violence that occurred in Colorado where a wife and 2 children became victims of domestic violence, the Family Service Agency of Burbank stands by ready to help any Burbank residence in preventing this or any domestic violence from occurring locally.

By Suzanne Weerts 

Drive down any sun-soaked Burbank neighborhood street and you’ll see well-manicured lawns, drought tolerant landscapes and charming homes, many built in the 1940s and 1950s. What you won’t see is what happens behind some of those doors. In every community, in every city, in every state in our country and across the world, there is someone experiencing some form of domestic violence in their home.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that on average nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men who are in need of support.

Assemblymember Laura Friedman stands at the Art Studio at Family Service Agency. ( Photo by Ross A Benson)

When the Family Service Agency of Burbank opened the doors of their first shelter for battered women and their families fourteen years ago, there was no place for women to stay long-term in Burbank. FSA’s Executive Director Laurie Bleick had been with the agency since 1991 and started the domestic violence program that eventually expanded to include a residential component. Bleick’s experience included many years of work in shelters, and she has been advocating for battered women for over 30 years. Through her leadership and the work of FSA’s team of mental health professionals, programs supporting victims at FSA have expanded greatly over the past two decades.

Currently, 312 women in Burbank are accessing care through Family Service Agency’s domestic violence program and many are living with their children in one of three residential facilities that FSA runs with the support of Burbank Housing Corporation. Because there is often control around money in situations of domestic abuse, battered women do not have to pay for services at FSA or during their stays in the agency’s transitional homes.

“99% of the women who go into our transitional shelters have been a client of ours, so we know who they are and we know they’re going to be successful,” says Bleick,

In most shelters across the country, women can only stay for a few months, but FSA accepts no federal funding and is not subject to such restrictions. Women and their children can reside in FSA’s Burbank shelters for as long as they need to, and the average stay is two to three years. The results of that gift of time are indisputable. To date, none of the women who have gone through FSA’s residential care program have gone back to their perpetrator.

“It won’t change the quality of the children’s or woman’s life unless there is ‘aftercare’, which we have at FSA,” Bleick explains, “Programs like ours educate women, and most aren’t returning to their perpetrators when they put in the time to work through the program and continue to accept counseling support through their transitions.” 

Assemblymember Laura Friedman. ( Photo by Ross A Benson)

According to the California Department of Public Health, domestic violence is a major public health problem that affects all age and socio-economic groups. Data from the State’s Department of Justice shows that in 2010, local law enforcement received 166,361 calls for assistance with domestic violence cases. A California Women’s Health Survey reports that about 6% of women (641,000) in California experienced at least one incident of psychological or physical domestic violence within a twelve-month period.

State Assemblywoman Laura Friedman recently toured FSA’s Burbank Blvd offices to learn more about the programs. While on the Glendale City Council, Friedman worked with community leaders and City officials to set up a Domestic Violence Taskforce. They brought together community organizations and city departments, such as the Glendale Police Department, to inform each other of the resources they offer domestic violence victims and to avoid gaps in the process so as to better assist those in need of help.

“When we started these groups weren’t coordinating at all,” Friedman explains, “Police didn’t know where they could take people. New groups had started and old groups had changed their mission or leadership and we weren’t maximizing our resources.”

Here in Burbank, services have been integrated for many years with financial support from the City, the School District, and a partnership with the Burbank Police Department.

“We provide referrals on every domestic violence call in multiple languages offering multiple resources including shelter options. FSA is #1 on the list,” says BPD Sergeant Derek Green, “We point people in the right direction when they may not know where to look for help or are ashamed or afraid or embarrassed.” 

“What amazes me most about FSA’s work with DV victims is the level of understanding the FSA has for the trauma the victims and their families have gone through,” says Friedman, “Allowing them to take an average of 3 years to transition out of the homes FSA has provided gives them an ample amount of time to find a job and be mentally prepared to fully immerse themselves into the real world once they feel like they’re truly ready.”

In Sacramento, Friedman is always looking for ways in which she can help organizations like FSA be successful, and one way is through her work with the California Legislative Women’s Caucus. For decades, they have been advocating for victims of domestic violence and their families. 

(Photo by Ross A Benson)

“We’ve fought for funding for crisis lines and supportive services. We’ve stood together to condemn violence and speak up for victims, and our membership has led the way on progressive policy changes that protect and strengthen the rights of victims,” explains Friedman. “In every community across California, we have organizations like FSA serving individuals and families in crisis.  We need to ensure that they have the resources they need to continue to provide a safety net, and that’s going to take ongoing advocacy and vigilance in every budget cycle.”

After over six decades of service in the Burbank community, FSA has shown no sign of stopping as their programs get stronger and grow deeper, helping the most vulnerable and invisible members of our community.

According to Friedman, their quiet work does not go unnoticed. “For 65 years, Burbank has benefited from this group of caring, compassionate and dedicated people who provide a safe space for those who feel alone and helpless.”

Bleick and her team have no intention of slowing down. Their doors will long be open to serve people in Burbank who need mental health care and support to break the patterns of domestic violence.

“This work is too important,” says Bleick, “And with the support of our city, the Burbank Police Department, our local businesses, community members and state legislators who are as dedicated as Laura, we hope to be around for another six decades or more.”

Senator Anthony Portantino Honors Family Service Agency As Non-Profit of the Year on Senate Floor

Brian Miller Chairman of Board FSA, Laurie Bleick Director FSA and Senator Anthony Portantino.

When California State Senator Anthony Portantino honored Burbank’s Family Service Agency as 2018 Non-Profit of the Year at the State Capitol on Wednesday, June 6, it was both in recognition for the exceptional work the 65-year-old Agency does in his district and it was personal. While the Senator has long known the importance of mental health care and has been an advocate for funding, it wasn’t until his own family was deeply touched by the tragedy that he became a sounding board for the cause.

Eight years ago, when Portantino was serving in the State Assembly, his beloved older brother Michael committed suicide at age 52. The owner of the Gay and Lesbian Times, the largest gay newspaper in Southern California, Michael was a civil rights icon whom Portantino lovingly refers to as “the Harvey Milk of San Diego.”

Michael Portantino came out to his mother, Barbara, when he was 16 and was so tenderly accepted by her, that many of the family’s conservative Italian relatives and friends became gay-friendly. That experience left a powerful impression of unconditional love on younger brother Anthony, who was in his mid-20s when he discovered his mother had known about his brother’s sexual identity for years. “She was just so accepting and didn’t treat him any differently,” says Portantino, “The rest of the family just followed her lead.”

Barbara Portantino inspired her sons to become activists. She once accompanied Michael to the Capitol Mall in Washington during the 2000 LGBT Millennial March and took the stage to support his lifelong quest to achieve equal rights for all Americans.

Senator Anthony Portatino taking a tour of the art room at FSA. ( Photo by Ross A Benson)

“My mom influenced all her children to stand up for what we believe in,” said Portantino, “She had a homespun confidence about her for a traditional stay-at-home widow. Coming from a very large Italian American Family, we had such a diverse array of relatives that we gained unique insight into people. My mother made sure that we knew some of the important lessons from relatives who faced abuse, mental health issues, and even sexual violence.”

When their mother Barbara died three years later, Portantino wrote her obituary and shared her support for his brother and advocacy for LGBT issues. “Much like my brother, my mother went on to have an impact on people even after her death,” says Portantino, “I was at a party and a husband and wife each came up to me separately and said they were inspired to be more accepting of their gay son after reading about my mom’s openness and uncanny ability to see the best in all people.”

Portantino has sought ways to turn his family’s tragic loss into something constructive. “People felt comfortable talking about mental health and suicide once I joined ‘the club’,” Portantino explains, “I try to appropriately share my brother’s story so people feel free about sharing their own family’s situation.”

Because of his life experiences, as a child who lost his father when he was eleven, as a family member of a suicide victim and as someone who has advocated for gay rights alongside a gay family member, Senator Portantino endeavors to carry on his brother’s work for LGBTQ rights, for mental health care in general and for suicide prevention specifically.

To that end, he authored a bill, SB 972, that will require the suicide prevention hotline be printed on all seventh grade through college California student IDs. The bill has passed the State Senate and is awaiting a vote in the State Assembly.

The problem is that we don’t talk about suicide and mental health enough and then we only talk about it after the tragedy,” says Portantino, “We react but we don’t prevent.”

That is why Portantino says he wants to bring more awareness to the work that Family Service Agency does in Burbank, “Mental health care is important to work and we need to bring it out of the shadows.”

Senator Anthony Portatino in front of Family Service Agency. ( Photo by Ross A Benson)

FSA’s Executive Director, Laurie Bleick, is one of the reasons the agency’s outreach has grown and Portantino is happy to acknowledge her efforts and that of her team on the Senate floor. “This is an issue for which Laurie and I share a kindred spirit, though I’m not in the trenches like FSA staff dealing with people on a direct basis,” says the Senator, “It is a mission that I care about, and if you spend even a few minutes with Laurie, you can see how passionate she is about her work.”

When Bleick came to FSA in 1991, there were 79 clinical clients and none were children. Today FSA serves thousands of children and families every year, delivering nearly $5 million in services for a budget of around $1.4 million.

“FSA has answers but not all of the answers,” says Bleick, “It is part of something that is so much bigger than any one institution. This has to be community work and we are grateful that Senator Portantino sees value in our piece of the mosaic, and is helping to draw attention to the need for legislative and local government support of mental health care and prevention.”

For 24 hour support, contact FSA at 818-845-7671 or reach out to the TEEN LINE at 818-333-6239. In case of immediate crisis, the Burbank Mental Health Evaluation Team can be reached at 818-238-3391. Or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ (800) 273-TALK (8255) 1-888-628-9454 (En Espanol) 

Family Service Agency Is A Godsend

The work provided by Family Service Agency is an important contribution to the Burbank community yet it can be difficult to quantify. Of course, there are statistics. They have three shelters that house more than 50 individuals and families at any given time. They see hundreds of clients monthly at their office on Burbank Blvd and counsel more than 2,000 children on BUSD’s Elementary and Middle School Campuses over the course of a year. FSA’s two mental health and wellness centers located at Burbank High and John Burroughs High Schools have had over 3000 visits representing over 900 individual students during the 2017-18 school year.

Those are a few statistics that express the number of lives they touch, but how many lives has FSA saved?

It is difficult to know because theirs is a story of confidentiality. People have been positively and quietly impacted by their services in the Burbank community for 65 years.  They come for guidance because of crises in their lives or for mental health maintenance. They come for help as the first step in recovery or as a last resort when nothing else has worked. They come for support because a friend, a teacher, the courts or their clergy recommended them.

Paul Clairville has been Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Burbank for 22 years and has turned to FSA time and time again when his congregants are in need of assistance. “In our mission work and the way we try to connect people to support systems, FSA fits hand and glove,” he says. With his sociology and theology degrees, Clairville recognizes that there are limits to the guidance he can offer members of his church. He is grateful to know that our city has a resource essentially on call 24/7 in case of a crisis or just to help an individual or family in need of more in-depth counseling.

(Photo by Ross A. Benson)

Across town at First Presbyterian, Pastor Ross Purdy, who serves on FSA’s Board of Directors, agrees. “Because congregants know and trust their pastors, we are often the first level of communication for problems,” he explains. “But I am trained as clergy and a historian, not as a counselor and I am grateful that I can make a quick call to Laurie Bleick [FSA’s Executive Director] or Christine Ramos [Director of Domestic Violence Programs] and know that issues beyond my training will be compassionately dealt with.”

A case in point: Purdy became aware of a situation involving possible abuse. Some might have called 911. He called FSA. “Calling Laurie first allowed a conversation to start without immediately opening up a police case that might have needlessly torn a family apart. FSA provides screening for need and helps determine what type of further intervention is required. In this situation, the family was able to get the necessary support to navigate the situation and move beyond it.”

Both clergymen have seen a significant expansion of FSA’s services since their new building opened on Burbank Blvd in 2008 and the agency went from 1800 square feet of office space to the 8200 it currently has.

“The growth of FSA speaks volumes and is a great Burbank success story. Space was a crippling factor a decade ago. I remember when they were in the storefront on Magnolia next to the donut shop,” says Purdy, who has been at First Presbyterian for 17 years, “Moving into the new space opened up so many more opportunities to expand services and outreach and the transition is huge. There’s been a tremendous staff increase and it is staggering the number of people going through there now.”

Mark Sobel has been the Rabbi at Temple Beth Emet for 21 years. Back in 1997, when he came to

Rabbi Marc Sobel (Photo by © Ross A Benson)

Burbank, FSA was still in the Magnolia Blvd. offices they occupied since the 1970’s. Back then, the agency served an average of 275 clients a month with a staff of 30. Today they serve thousands in the Burbank Blvd. space and have a staff of 91 professionals. He commends FSA for their work with local teens, “Family Service Agency is especially effective in its group counseling and should be commended for helping Burbank’s young people.”

Father Vazken Movsesian of St. Leon Armenian Cathedral has nothing but praise for the Agency for which his congregation collects toys over the holiday season,  “Whenever I have referred people to FSA they have been treated with respect and dignity,” he says, “FSA’s focus on the local community and the way they reach out to families and children with confidentiality, caring and compassion ties in with our desire to reach out to others.”

Father Vazken Movsesian

With degrees in Ethics from USC and Process Theology from Claremont School of Theology, Father Movsesian has a keen eye for the challenges that his parishioners face in their lives and has born witness to their struggles over the 14 years he’s served as a priest both in Burbank and at St. Peter Armenian Church in Glendale. He recognizes that there is still a stigma surrounding counseling, but knows there shouldn’t be.

Family Service Agency has long worked to dispel any stigma tied to getting help, but they realize perceptions still need to change. While the High School Mental Health and Wellness Centers have had a significant impact on thousands of children since Burbank High opened theirs in 2016 and the doors to the JBHS center opened in 2017, not every child has found their way to the seeking help and there is much work to be done in addressing obstacles to care. For 65 years FSA has been committed to increasing life-saving awareness with our youth. We work with BUSD and the greater community to secure the critical resources necessary to address the ever-growing need for preventative care, early interventions, school-based counseling and emergency clinical support and advocacy.

Meanwhile, at their Burbank Blvd offices, FSA offers counseling youth, adults, couples and families for depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, bullying, verbal or physical harassment, grief, trauma, learning difficulties, family violence, relationship problems, drug or alcohol abuse and any issue causing undue stress. In today’s fast-paced world, stress is becoming a common complaint.

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

All four clergymen have seen changes in the stress levels of their congregants in recent years, often resulting in the need for the services FSA provides. The agency’s counselors work with clients to learn coping skills, empowerment, stress relief and tools to achieve overall emotional wellness.

“The nature of my job has changed,” said Purdy, “I used to have 24 hours to call back but now people are upset and panic if they don’t hear back in an hour.”

“We’re definitely seeing increased anxiety with the instant society everyone is living in now, and what both FSA and the ministry do, hopefully, connect people to reality and to other people,” said Clairville.

Rabbi Sobel notes, “I do believe that my congregants are more stressed due to the increased speed of everyday life and the expectations put on people to be successful and to demonstrate that success in sound bites and instant communications. People no longer seem to have the time to mull over things.”

Clairville has seen the need for basic counseling his church community go in waves. “At times the pressures on teenagers seems most prevalent as it is right now, sometimes we’re dealing with more couples counseling, sometimes its support for domestic abuse or addiction to drugs or alcohol, but whatever community crisis takes place: suicide, accidents, family breakdown, the first place I turn is Family Service Agency,” he says, “They are indeed a Godsend.”

According to FSA’s Laurie Bleick, that means a lot coming from Clairville, who heads up the Burbank Ministerial Association, a group of religious leaders that work with all the local non-profits. “The referrals we get from our local clergy demonstrate the importance of community partnerships,” she explains, “People often come to us because someone they trust suggests FSA as a resource. We are fortunate to live in a city that offers a number of safety nets to catch people in need and we are grateful to be here to help.”

FSA’s Wellness Centers on the High School Campuses will be open Monday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm through June, provided students utilize the resource. Beyond June and after hours, the Mental Health and Wellness Center’s dedicated student line is 818-333-6239. Parents seeking support or who are interested in the mission of the Mental Health and Wellness Centers on campus are encouraged to call FSA at 818-845-7671.  

 

 

Family Service Agencies Annual CareWalk Brings Out over 400 Walkers Supporting Mental Health

Assemblywoman 43rd District Laura Friedman presents Janet Diel with a Citation for her dedication to her city. ( Photo by © Ross A Benson)

Burbank Firefighters from the C Platoon with Battalion Chief Travon White walked this years CareWalk as a team. (Photo by © Ross A Benson)

On Saturday, April 21, the Burbank community filled Johnny Carson Park with compassion, generosity and physical fitness as they took to the paths and over the bridges of the recently renovated park for a 5k power walk or a casual stroll in support of Family Service Agency’s 11th Annual CareWalk. More than 400 teachers, parents, students, counselors, community and business leaders came out to support FSA in their 65th year of service in Burbank.
 
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman joined FSA Executive Director Laurie Bleick, emcee and former Burbank Mayor Anja Reinke and CareWalk honoree Janet Diel on stage as State Senator Anthony Portantino announced that FSA will be honored in the California State Senate as 2018 Non- Profit of the Year. “We are awed by the continuing support of our community,” said Bleick, “And to learn that our work and the importance of mental health care will be recognized in the Senate is icing on the cake of a beautiful day.”
 
Perhaps Bleick should have said syrup on the pancakes. For the 11th year, Command Performance donated the delicious pancake breakfast that greeted walkers as they completed their laps and earned their medals. Committee chair Eric Hansen joined Mickey DePalo, Mary Alvord, Teri Stein, Elise Stearns-Neisen, Chris Krohn, Pat Smola and Ross Benson in putting together the most successful CareWalk to date.
 
For 65 years, Family Service Agency has been dedicated to providing counseling, prevention, education, and advocacy to empower children, adults, and families to achieve psychological, emotional and social wellness.

Pennies Spent Today are Dollars Saved Tomorrow

When Michael Cusumano was growing up in Burbank and playing Vikings football, enjoying the annual Jaycee carnival at McCambridge Park and riding his bicycle to Jefferson Elementary School, he hadn’t heard of Family Service Agency, though they’d been quietly working in our city for twenty years.

Michael Cusumano (Photo by Ross A Benson)

When he went to 5th and 6th grades at McKinley and moved on to Jordan Junior High and John Burroughs High School before getting his degree in economics at UCLA in 1984, the work being done by Family Service Agency wasn’t on his radar, though they’d been changing and saving lives in Burbank for thirty years.

And as he joined and expanded his family’s successful real estate company in Burbank, and volunteered for and supported numerous organizations in the community, Family Service Agency hadn’t crossed his path even though they’d been discreetly offering support and counseling services to Burbankians for forty years.

But ten years ago, after Family Service Agency had been serving our community for fifty-five years and had long outgrown its small space on Magnolia Blvd., then Burbank Mayor, Marsha Ramos approached Cusumano about a unique opportunity. The city was prepared to purchase a building for FSA on the condition that they could come up with the necessary funding to essentially gut and remodel the interior and purposefully design the space for their services.

The Cusumano family saw an investment in the future. With a $150,000 commitment that inspired additional donations and helped secure the necessary financing, Family Service Agency has been able to expand their reach over the past decade from their home on Burbank Blvd.

(Photo by Ross A Benson)

“The investment made by the Cusumanos at that time was integral to a successful fundraising campaign, but more importantly, they established a key partnership that has enabled the delivery of outstanding services,” explained Ramos.

Cusumano was surprised to learn about the diversity of consequential work the Agency had been discreetly doing in our community for decades. Ramos along with Anja Reinke, Michael Wilford, Zeta LeFebvre and Mary Alice O’Connor introduced him to FSA’s growing efforts in the local schools, their work with victims of domestic abuse and with families and individuals in crisis. Then-Police Chief, Tom Hoefel, shared how valuable FSA is as a court intervention resource.

Laurie Bleick has served as Executive Director of FSA since 1991. She knows first hand what a difference the new building has meant to the organization’s services. “The Cusumano family’s lead donation to our building capital campaign has allowed FSA to increase Burbank’s mental health care for 19 BUSD schools, for families in our 3 transitional homes as well as for individuals, couples and families at our site on Burbank Blvd. by over 400% in the past ten years,” Bleick explained.

And in the decade since the building dream came to fruition, FSA’s financial stewardship has high marks as well. The organization has paid off the loan that renovated their space while giving 5 to 7 million dollars in counseling services annually on a budget of less than $1.4 million a year. Numbers like that are impressive to a businessman like Cusumano, but the personal success stories are what solidified his commitment to ensuring that FSA can continue and expand their work in the Burbank community.

And while Cusumano knows that FSA’s work crosses socio-economic and racial lines and affects all ages, it is the kids who most pull on his heartstrings and therefore on his purse-strings.

(Photo by Ross A Benson)

His most striking memory was of touring the art studio and seeing the paintings, drawings, and sculptures done by children and teens. “They say art is a window into the soul,” Cusumano explains, “And when young people who are unable to express themselves verbally have the chance to do so through art it can have a real impact.” He was moved by the pieces created by children clearly struggling with heartbreaking challenges. “But then you see the pieces they’ve done once they are healed, and the hope and emotion that is expressed there is profound,” he explained. “When I saw that, I was sold.”

Cusumano is also impressed by the work FSA has long been doing in the Burbank schools where he has collaborated as a business partner with several Principals. “Kids bring the weight of their problems from home into their classrooms and it is impossible to expect them to learn without additional support,” said Cusumano, “Having a resource like what FSA provides so many families is crucial in the formative years.”

When he hears from principals about the needs in the schools and police officers describe the importance of intervention and the requirements for court-ordered counseling, it is clear to Cusumano that pennies spent today are indeed dollars saved tomorrow.

He realizes he was fortunate that when he was growing up in Burbank, he didn’t need the services offered by FSA. But he is grateful that the organization is now on his radar and he can do something to help. “I come from a big family. My wife, Caroline, and I have done some fostering and when I look at kids who are vulnerable and have to grow up in dangerous or uncomfortable homes, it is daunting, but we as a community can do something to alleviate that suffering and it is worth the investment.”

As Family Service Agency celebrates their 65th Anniversary this year, Cusumano hopes that the investments his family has made inspire others to get involved. Laurie Bleick and her team are truly thankful. “The impact of the Cusumano’s compassionate leadership is immeasurable,” said Bleick, “Their quiet generosity allows for a stronger, safer, healthier Burbank and I will be forever grateful for their constant commitment to Burbank’s most fragile children, adults and families.”

Care Walk Needs Sponsors To Support Youth Mental Health Care

The Eleventh Annual Care Walk, scheduled for Saturday, April 21, at Johnny Carson Park, provides an opportunity for members of the Burbank community to support youth mental health care.

This event raises awareness and funding for the on-site, no-cost counseling programs provided by the Family Services Agency of Burbank (FSA) at all of the schools in the Burbank Unified School District (BUSD).

(Photo by Ross A. Benson)

Last year, FSA served over 2,400 students on 19 BUSD campuses, providing over 13,000 hours of counseling. Students received professional counseling to help them confront issues of depression, anxiety, feelings of alienation, thoughts or plans of suicide, family violence, critical illness, grief and loss, sexual identity, date rape and violence, bullying and peer violence, eating disorders, cutting and substance use and abuse, all while trying to meet the expectations of their young lives.

All the proceeds from the event, which attracts over 400 participants, go towards supporting the no-cost services provided by FSA.

You can learn more by going to www.CAREWALKOFBURBANK.org or calling (818) 845-7671.