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Closures and Reopenings Leave Staffs Bewildered

Times Staff Writer

It was not exactly business as usual Tuesday morning at Coastal Community Health Clinic in Carson. Like seven other psychiatric centers in Los Angeles County, the clinic was suddenly reopened after being shut down the day before.

Dr. Joel Foxman, the clinic’s director, looked bewildered about 9 a.m. as he removed the clinic’s newly posted closure sign from the door.

“This is the third time that we’ve had signs on the door to close the clinic and have then taken them down,” he said. “I had no doubt that this time we were really closing.”

The false alarms have all occurred since the clinic was targeted for shutdown last July in response to an $18-million shortfall in state mental health funds.

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“This is enough to drive you crazy,” said visitor Ester Rabb, a South Bay mental health coordinator. “There’s nothing to save here,” she said, surveying a room of empty cubicles and stacked furniture. “Everything is boxed up. Most of the staff has gone and the rest are leaving. They’ve sent the patients off.”

As with other clinics that had been marked for closure, the sudden reopening left weary administrative personnel wondering what to do next and how long they will be kept afloat. While no patients were scheduled for treatment or therapy sessions at Coastal on Tuesday, clinic psychiatrists treated more than a dozen people who came by anyway.

Tom Granucci, a social worker who is being laid off Friday, continued his final clinic task, helping to box 15,000 patient charts for storage or shredding.

Into a big brown box marked for destruction in the year 2003, Granucci deposited the chart of a 3-year-old girl from Gardena who had been molested by her father and was suffering from “post-traumatic stress disorder” when she was last seen at the clinic six months ago.

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“Do you think they’re really going to be able to find this little girl’s chart if she comes back in?” Granucci said. “This feels really futile.”

‘Sad Story’

Into another box, Granucci said, will go the charts of a 50-year-old man who lives in his car and is possessed by his former wife’s infidelity and a desire to kill her.

Each file, Granucci said, is a person’s life. “Each one is a story, a sad story.”

Foxman said that 80% of the files have been boxed and that he has no plans to “unbox” them.

At its peak, the clinic treated more than 1,000 adults and 300 children. “Most of our patients are poor and jobless,” Foxman said. “They are not dangerous or violent. They are frightened, fragile creatures who without our care will withdraw further from society, ending up as transients or homeless people on the street.”

About 30 of the children and 250 medication-dependent adults are being transferred to other clinics. The rest will have their files placed in storage along with thousands of other inactive cases.

“We have done the equivalent of preparing ourselves for dying. We were ready to let go,” Foxman said.

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“Now we have this stay of execution,” clinic secretary Pam Pyn said. “It’s just prolonging the agony.”

It has been an intense time for staffers, made more difficult by the recent murder of a former colleague. Robbyn Panitch, the psychiatric social worker who was stabbed to death a week ago by a mental patient at the Santa Monica West Mental Health Center, until recently worked at Coastal. Like many other Coastal staff members, she sought a transfer when it was announced that Coastal would close.

Transfers and resignations have cut Coastal’s staff from 50 to 30. Ten more people are being laid off Friday. And the rest are being scheduled for transfer.

“The system is so sick itself that many nice competent people are leaving to go places that are more secure, more considerate and more respectful,” Foxman said.


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