2021 Grants Challenge

Mental Health Services for High-Risk Foster, Probation, and Homeless Youth

For nearly 115 years Optimist has served one of the most vulnerable populations in Los Angeles – probation, foster, and homeless youth. These high-risk youth have histories of family dysfunction, emotional and mental health problems, substance abuse and behavioral issues. Through individual and family counseling, therapy, and psychiatric care, Optimist’s Mental Health Services work to address the profound effects of trauma, correct problems in family/social relationships, and stabilize families to avoid institutional placements.


In which areas of Los Angeles will you be directly working?

County of Los Angeles

What is the problem that you are seeking to address?

There is a growing understanding of the role of childhood trauma plays in mental health. The groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found Adverse Childhood Experiences, or “ACEs,” have a profound, lasting impact on a child’s developing brain and body. There are ten recognized ACEs which fall into three general types: (1) abuse; (2) neglect; and (3) household dysfunction. The study found that a person with four or more ACEs is “more likely to experience chronic disease and engage in negative health behavior.” These individuals are more likely to attempt suicide, use injection drugs, be an alcoholic, suffer from depression, smoke and more. The youth served by Optimist have four or more ACEs and require specialized care to allow them to overcome their trauma. It is imperative to provide meaningful intervention to youth impacted by trauma as soon as possible. Guidance from responsible adults and developmentally-appropriate programs can change the course of their lives.

Describe the project, program, or initiative that this grant will support to address the problem identified.

Optimist provides the specialized care and unbounded love and understanding every Probation and foster child needs. Our services are deeply rooted in equity and leveling the playing field so high-risk youth have the best chance to succeed. In partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, Optimist offer individual and family counseling sessions for our residential and foster family-placed children and the community at large through outpatient clinics. The goal is to improve self-esteem while assisting with adjustment issues and family relations, as well as stabilize families and avoid institutional placement of their children. We provide therapy and psychiatric care to children and youth. Individual therapy is used to treat the effects of trauma, problems in social relationships, and/or family problems that affect the client’s emotional well-being. Therapists work with clients to address mental health symptoms and impairments within their families and primary support systems, communities, and schools. Optimist also offers Wraparound services to help avoid out-of-home placement by “wrapping” services around each client’s family. These services help families to build on existing supportive relationships and develop new ones. A multidisciplinary team—Facilitator, Therapist, Child and Family Specialist, and a Parent Partner—address complex needs on varied levels of support within multiple community and/or treatment settings.

In what stage of innovation is this project, program, or initiative?

Expand existing project, program, or initiative

Approximately how many people will be impacted by this project, program, or initiative?

Direct Impact: 835

Indirect Impact: 1,670

Describe how Los Angeles County will be different if your work is successful.

A 2017 Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Outcomes study reported that one-third of juvenile probationers are re-arrested within one year of their release. Approximately 65% of probation youth had family members who had also been arrested/incarcerated. At least one-fifth of youth had some type of Department of Children and Family Services contact prior to their arrest. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention suggests community-based interventions, like those offered by Optimist, are much more effective at improving long-term outcomes than long-term incarceration. These youth are in crucial states of mental and emotional development. Optimist provides treatment, prevention, and early interventions that change the trajectory for high-risk probation and foster youth in Los Angeles, increasing access to mental health services now as well as decreasing the likelihood that these youth will develop severe mental illness as adults.

What evidence do you have that this project, program, or initiative is or will be successful, and how will you define and measure success?

In a recent client survey, 89% of clients reported report the level of care and treatment provided by Optimist was Good, 92% reported meeting their treatment goals, and 86% reported the therapist gave valuable information. In 2020, our outpatient mental health program served 819 youth, with an average age of 11. The average length of service was 6 months. At Optimist, our biggest accomplishment is the long-term difference we make in the lives of the high-risk youth we serve. Through our aftercare program, we find that youth emancipating from Optimist are 31.5% more likely than the national average to make a successful transition to life in the community during the first year following their 18th birthday, meaning they maintain stable employment and/or attend college or trade school, abstain from alcohol and/or drugs, and maintain positive adult relationships. Of these, nearly 90% maintain that success in the second year as well.

Which of the LIVE metrics will you impact?​

Mental illness

Access to mental health services