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Casa Pacifica Chief a Man Who Loves to Heal : Camarillo: Steven Elson will lead a facility designed to offer abused youths a homelike setting where all needs can be met.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For Steven E. Elson, there are few things in life better than the feeling he gets when he breaks through the psychological walls of a child who has suffered traumatic abuse.

And now Elson, the newly named executive director of Casa Pacifica in Camarillo, will be able to continue the work he loves in a soon-to-be-opened facility, tailored to help Ventura County’s troubled kids.

“With this project I kind of feel like a farmer with his hands in the soil,” Elson said. “It’s inspiring for me to watch kids come in upset, angry and frustrated and then leave in better shape. It’s very gratifying.”

The Casa Pacifica project has been designed to offer children suffering from physical, sexual or psychological abuse a homelike setting where all their needs can be met.

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Under the county’s current system, children who are removed from an abusive home and made wards of the court are usually taken to one of four foster homes around the county. Ten homes serve as backups, and one group home is available.

But none provide at one place the medical care, counseling, clothing, food, shelter and education that abused children will receive at Casa Pacifica.

The $10-million Casa Pacifica project has long been the dream of a private-public task force seeking a comprehensive facility to serve as a way station between abusive homes and long-term foster families.

When it opens in July, Casa Pacifica will offer 24 temporary shelter beds and 24 long-term beds on a campus governed by Elson and a staff of physicians, nurses, teachers, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers and others. Capacity will eventually increase to 60 beds.

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During its first year, the facility is expected to serve nearly 400 kids, ranging from infants to 17-year-olds, officials said. Children in the shelter program will stay as long as 30 days, while kids in the residence program--those needing long-term psychological care--will stay as long as a year.

Elson, 48, has been executive director of the Sycamores, a well-regarded residential-care facility for troubled boys in Altadena, since 1984. He has worked on the Casa Pacifica project as a consultant and was attracted to the director’s job by the challenge of starting a new program and by the high level of community and local government support for the project, he said.

In 1991, Ventura County provided $4 million in start-up funding. Since then, an additional $6 million has been raised from private sources.

Casa Pacifica officials estimate that the facility will need a $3-million annual operating budget. They expect the money to come from private donors and government grants. The county’s annual contribution has not been determined.

“The seamlessness of the public-private partnership that has come together for Casa Pacifica is practically unheard of elsewhere,” Elson said. “It’s very unique.”

Elson, who received his undergraduate schooling in California and his doctorate in counseling psychology from Michigan State, has led or served on several statewide children’s services and mental health organizations. He is currently president of the California Mental Health Advocates for Children and Youth.

During his tenure at the Sycamores, Elson’s skills as a clinician, psychologist and administrator began to shine, said Toni E. Stone, president of the organization’s board of directors.

“He’s a person that does his homework and keeps abreast of the trends in therapy and funding,” Stone said. “Because of this, Steve has helped give us the excellent reputation that we enjoy. We’re going to miss him.”

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Richard H. Goodrich, president of Casa Pacifica’s board of directors, said the choice of Elson was an easy one.

“Steve’s clinical and academic experience was a critical factor in our decision,” Goodrich said, “but so was his ability to deal with the financial aspects of running a facility such as this.”

Goodrich added that he and the board felt confident in Elson’s abilities to deal with the occasional problems that may arise from a close partnership with the county. He added that Elson’s hire was unanimously approved by Casa Pacifica’s 30-member board of directors. Elson was chosen from a field of 110 applicants.

Elson and Casa Pacifica officials declined to disclose his salary in the new job.

Jerry Blesener, Ventura County’s deputy director of protective services, called Elson’s selection a smart decision for the nonprofit agency and the county.

“We have worked with him for some time in his role as a consultant on this project,” Blesener said. “I think that because he’s been through so much of the thought process, he’s well-prepared to take this position on. From the county perspective, we look forward to working with him.”

In his new job, Elson will use cognitive behavior therapy to deal with the outbursts and other behavior problems typical of severely abused children, he said. The therapy, which helps abused children learn problem-solving, self-management and self-awareness, was conceived in the 1960s by psychotherapist Aaron Beck.

“It helps them approach problems in a different way other than just lashing out. It lets them think through what their actions will be before they occur,” Elson said.

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Elson said he will have to adjust to the administration of Casa Pacifica’s temporary shelter program and its coeducational setting. The Sycamores is strictly a long-term program, designed only for boys who are severely emotionally disturbed.

Elson, who lives in the San Gabriel Valley, plans to move to Ventura County soon, possibly before he starts at Casa Pacifica March 1.

The new director said there is much to do before the first child walks through the center’s front doors in July.

“It’s brand new and it’s an opportunity to build something from the ground up,” Elson said. “Existing programs are not quite as clean--they’re not truly yours. For that reason and others, I see this position as a tremendous challenge and I’m very excited about it.”


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