Camarillo’s house of peace

Casa Pacifica is the place where dreams of a better future come true

By Stacey Wiebe

Photo by Guy W. Kitchens


ooking through the bedroom windows in the toddlers’ cottage at Casa Pacifica, tiny blankets cover little bodies swaddled in the semi-darkness of afternoon light. In their various states of sound sleep, the innocence exudes from the children — who range in age from days old to 5 years — like the soft, barely perceptible puffs of air breathed from their mouths.

This is Casa Pacifica, a place of refuge and a place of hope and, for many children who spend years in and out of their family homes and foster homes as they traverse the unsteady ground of the legal system, the only place that they can truly call home. Here in the pre-K cottage, the walls are painted to resemble a far-off land where pastel elephants and giraffes graze the day away beneath leafy trees. Perhaps the children are dreaming of exotic creatures and not the gritty details of their lives.

Like the pre-K cottage, Casa Pacifica is a haven for those placed in the organization’s crisis care program, a 45-bed emergency shelter for kids removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. Those in crisis care stay in the shelter for an average of 45 days and, like all others admitted, receive medical care from on-site medical staff at an on-site doctor’s office — a kid-friendly branch off Casa’s main offices adorned with a mural and plenty of smiling faces.

A glimpse inside one of Casa Pacifica’s sleeping quarters.

“I think the hardest part is when kids don’t have any hope, when they don’t see a future for themselves,” said Steven E. Elson, chief executive officer of Casa Pacifica. “You have to help change their vision of where they see their lives.”

Crisis care is designed as temporary placement for children entering the welfare system or children who are in foster care but have had an unsuccessful foster home or group home placement. In addition to medical care, all kids at Casa Pacifica are given educational, social and emotional assessments designed to help child protective services make informed decisions on the behalf of the children.

Situated on 23 acres among the rich, grassy fields and gently sloping hills of the picturesque outskirts of Camarillo, Casa Pacifica, with clusters of buildings fashioned from fresh redwood, looks more like a summer camp than the crisis center it is. It is a safe sanctuary for children and adolescents from birth to 18 years of age, but it is also the place where many children go when things have gotten really bad — when they are seized by child protective services in the midst of a drug bust, when the abuse and neglect on the home front has finally reached a breaking point, when the forces outside of the harsh world of their daily lives step in to say enough’s enough.

Bright colors and murals create a comforting atmosphere in Casa Pacifica’s TV room.

“I think the kids who spend any length of time here are positively impacted by Casa Pacifica,” said Vicki Murphy, director of operations and development. “For some, it’s the place they’ve been the longest. It’s home.”

At Casa Pacifica, the goal is to build normalcy into the lives of children who are uncertain about where they stand. Many of these kids lack self-esteem and seek to gain some kind of control over lives they have so far had no apparent control over. “We try to bring as much normalcy to their lives as possible every day,” Murphy said. “They get a chance to be treated lovingly and kindly, and that’s brand new for some of them.”

In addition to its crisis care, Casa Pacifica offers residential treatment for children 11 to 17 with severe behavioral or emotional problems and who have “proven too difficult for a foster or group home setting.” Nestled in the heart of Casa’s quietly sprawling and grassy camp-like setting — complete with clean, sun-bleached sidewalks on which to play — are gender-segregated cottages with 28 beds for long-term care. In one of the girls’ cottages, shoes line a wall near one of the bedroom doors, which is lavishly decorated with silvery streamers from a recent birthday. Tiny Raiders stickers and photos adorn one of the rooms. Some kids stay for about 18 months. Others stay far longer. Still others leave, only to return again and again.

Some who return actually strive to extricate themselves from foster care or group homes to return to the constancy and love they found at Casa Pacifica. It’s a place that changes people. “I think it’s especially obvious with the little kids that they make rapid changes after coming here,” Elson said. “Kids come in who don’t talk, and then they’re yapping away. Just the attention and the adult interaction is enough to help those who don’t walk and don’t talk.”

Casa Pacifica also has a 54-student non-public school for grades four through 12, with a low student-teacher ratio. The organization’s Supportive and Therapeutic Options Program, or STOP, bridges on-site services with the home environment by providing clinical and after-care services to day students and their families.

Archie, the therapy dog with Jenna Paneiko, daughter of a Casa Pacifica staff member.

Likewise, Therapeutic Behavioral Services, or TBS, provides short-term, individualized behavioral interventions for children living in the community who are in danger of being placed in high-level group homes. Wraparound, another of Casa’s programs, is similar to TBS in that it is geared toward preventing residential placement. It is an intensive, family-oriented “culturally relevant process” that targets special needs among youth. “Those programs are specifically designed to keep kids out of Casa Pacifica and at home,” Elson explained.

Casa Pacifica is the brainchild of a group of concerned Ventura County residents who, in response to what they believed was a severe lack of services for youth removed from their homes by child protective services, first dreamed of such a place in the 1980s.

That group launched a fundraising campaign to raise the $10 million it took to construct Casa Pacifica, which opened its doors in the summer of 1994 to abused, neglected and severely emotionally disturbed children, and the day-school that opened in 1996.

Today, Casa Pacifica’s ever-expanding reach includes residential treatment programs in several Southern California counties and two locations in Santa Barbara County, where Casa Pacifica offers various services. The Safe Alternatives for Treating Youth, or SAFTY Program, is a mobile crisis response service available to all Santa Barbara County youth up to the age of 18.

Over the years, the organization has streamlined its efforts to work closely with county agencies and schools to help youth get what they need — and deserve.

Archie, a Newfoundland hound and therapy dog in training that lives at home with Murphy, is yet another new addition on campus. “Sometimes the kids come up and ask if they can be with him or take him for a walk if they’re having a tough time,” said Murphy, who added that the kids also love to read to the big, lumbering pup. “They know he won’t judge.”


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