Hillsides Community Blog

Why Gun Violence Continues to be an Ongoing Health Crisis

Teenager depressed sitting inside a dirty tunnel

Once again, last week the nation was rocked by a tragic incident of gun violence. It was noteworthy because it targeted elected officials, reminding us how fragile we are as a nation during a time of unprecedented discord. The commentary following this disturbing violence has focused on the need for civility in our public discourse with surprisingly little said about gun violence. It would be frightening if the lack of mention about gun violence was an indicator that we have accepted such incidents as part of our normal way of life.

With this as a backdrop, a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “Guns kill nearly 1,300 children in the US each year and send thousands more to hospitals,” only emphasizes the tremendous risk of harm that the most vulnerable children experience on a daily basis. Without effectively addressing gun violence, we only increase the probability that the alarming rise in gun-related child suicides and other firearm-related deaths of children will go unabated. This article identified a population of children and youth only too familiar to us at Hillsides and reinforces the concern that these children are at risk of experiencing such violence. It is unacceptable for anyone to live in fear of intentional or accidental firearm-related violence, whether you are a member of Congress or an unsuspecting child caught in a cross fire.

As always in this kind of situation, the mental well-being of the perpetrator is questioned and often found to be unstable. Certainly, easy access to effective mental health services is part of the solution when addressing how to reduce the risk of gun-related violence. However, the impact of mental health treatment is limited by inadequate diagnosis, insufficient funding, limited access, and the ongoing stigma associated with mental illness. There is no question that the ability to provide effective early interventions to support people challenged by mental illness is an important aspect in reducing any risk due to access to firearms.  However, this alone is not sufficient to address this issue.

In spite of many protocols in place to control the purchase of firearms, guns continue to be relatively accessible for either sport or self-defense. Proper storage and access is dependent on the judgement and practice of owners. The unqualified right to bear arms coupled with a culture entertained by gratuitous violence is a lethal formula that has resulted in the highest rate of gun-related deaths of any other developed nation. Studies indicate that the U.S. accounts for 91% of all firearm- related deaths of children under 14 among the world’s 23 richest countries.

Perhaps because of the political climate, it is unrealistic to assume that those mercilessly targeted by a mad man might discuss gun control.  However, the failure to do so will ensure that this kind of violence will be repeated. The odds are that those who will suffer the ramifications of such inaction will be poor, vulnerable children and youth, and those who are emotionally fragile. The refusal to act to address this issue assures that our communities will continue to be shattered by random violence, and all because of the lack of political resolve to safeguard the right to bear arms in a way that also assures the safety and well-being of all, especially the most vulnerable.

Congratulations to our High School Graduates

Graduation quote

One of the most momentous occasions in life is graduation from high school. Many of us see this as a very achievable milestone — predictable and expected. However, for others, graduating from high school is not a given. For example, California graduation rates in 2015-2016 for students in foster care was just over 50 percent, at 50.08 percent. Students who fail to graduate from high school are more likely to be poor, unemployed, become parents prematurely and are at risk of becoming addicted to alcohol or substance use. Failure to achieve this milestone is a predictor for homelessness or incarceration.

Even for those who do graduate, high school graduation more and more is considered insufficient as a basis for a successful future. Many municipalities are considering extending “high school” to include grades 13 and 14 in order to provide a better foundation for the success of its young people.

Many students from stable homes experience obstacles in high school. When you layer onto these challenges, traumas rooted in abuse and neglect, a childhood spent in foster care, poverty, diagnosed learning challenges and mental health issues, the odds of achieving this most elemental milestone is only made more difficult.

For the five students who graduated from the Hillsides Education Center yesterday, receiving a high school diploma after overcoming any number of traumas and challenges was a good indicator that more likely than not, in spite of other hardships they may encounter, they will do well. One of the graduates summed up his attitude quoting the hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, “Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes but they don’t quit.” The quote resonates for one of the graduates, Daniel, a young man who years ago resolved to never quit.

Daniel was not able to read until he was in middle school; a childhood spent in foster care and multiple schools disrupted his academic success. But then, at 11, an interest in Batman comic books made him determined to learn to read. Within a few years, he was mastering the complexities of the Harry Potter series. When Daniel, now 18, arrived at Hillsides Education Center (HEC) as a high school freshman, he was asked to become a peer tutor in the school’s Reading Rocks program for underperforming readers. For the last several years, Daniel has tutored students at HEC a few times a week, becoming one of the most dependable and sought-after tutors. After graduating from high school, he plans on becoming a teacher or a teacher’s aide.

As this story illustrates, the graduation yesterday was a wonderful celebration that acknowledges the achievements of the graduates. The ceremony also recognizes the dedication of their teachers and counselors and the commitment of their family and friends to their success. Together we have much for which to be proud. Our hope is that what these graduates have achieved will lessen the poor odds many young people confront today, and that this is just one step in a great journey for them.

Celebrating Foster Care Month: How One Little Girl Found her `Forever Family’

Hillsides is dedicated to the goal of creating permanency for the children and youth we serve. For the vast majority of the children, the best pathway is to support their parents and extended family to address any issues that might serve as an obstacle to stability.  There are, however, very sad instances where parents and the families may not be able to provide a safe, nurturing environment for a child.  In these cases, after exhaustive attempts to support the family of origin, parental rights are eventually relinquished and the child becomes available for adoption.

Our affiliation with Bienvenidos has introduced Hillsides to an extraordinary group of foster (also known as resource) families who have enhanced our capacity to support children separated from their parents by providing a welcoming, safe and nurturing home while working towards reunification. Additionally, some of these foster families are available to adopt if the biological parents and extended families are not able to be reunified with the child. Out of these very challenging situations, these exemplary foster families open their hearts and homes to adopt.Resource Family quote

On our website, you will find the story of a courageous couple who despite their fears that their hopes for a family would be unrealized, welcomed an infant into their home and eventually adopted her as their own. As traumatizing as being separated from parents and community is, the loss can be eased by knowing that you have been chosen to be loved.

The story of Leah and her adoring parents reinforces how hope can spring from hardship.  This wonderful couple is one of a hundred families licensed through the Bienvenidos Foster Care and Adoptions program. Some of these loving families serve as an ally for a child and family while anticipating reunification while others, like the family profiled, are prepared to welcome a child who is vulnerable into their family through adoption.

May is National Foster Care Month.  In Los Angeles County alone there are currently 18,000 children in foster care in need of a good home whether temporarily or permanently. Parenting requires selflessness and a willingness to sacrifice for the child’s best interest. We are very fortunate to have such generous families who give wholeheartedly to these children separated from their families. The need is great to secure many more foster families.  Please consider joining the ranks of such remarkable families and become a foster parent. For more information, please email fostercarerecruitment@bienvenidos.org or call 1-800-828-5683.

Why We Need to Make Our Voices Heard During Mental Health Awareness Month

Mental health advocacy quote

To say that there is a lot going on in Washington, DC these days is an understatement. Although the most recent events have taken the attention away from efforts to reform access to healthcare, the initiative that was passed by the House of Representatives and now forwarded to the Senate for consideration represents a development in public policy that potentially will have significant impact on all Americans for generations.

The American Health Care Act proposal places in question a number of provisions of the current Affordable Care Act (ACA) at the discretion of individual states as to the scope of health care coverage. What now is called essential benefits would be affected, including access to mental health care.

Over the last 20 years, advocates, including Hillsides, have pressed for greater access to mental health services, not only because these services are essential to all those we serve but because the availability of these services can create a significant and lasting positive impact. Failure to treat mental health issues often exacerbates chronic physical ailments and jeopardizes the well-being and long-term stability of many. Chronic mental health issues often place clients at risk of harm to themselves and, in some rare instances, of harming others. We have seen the horrific effect of the lack of mental illness treatment in suicide rates and violent exchanges that have left innocent people dead. To remove mental health treatment from the list of essential services to be covered in a health care plan and leave its inclusion to the discretion of individual states is a reckless and short-sighted proposal.  It will only lead to extraordinary disparity in care, limit considerably affordable access to this essential service, and result in needless harm to the mentally ill and our communities in general.

It is devastatingly ironic that such a proposal, endorsed by the House of Representatives, should be advanced during May, the month set aside to call attention to the plight of many who are challenged by mental illness. As I visit our residential treatment center or hear our community-based therapists discuss the challenges of their clients, I am increasingly concerned that limiting in any way the availability of indispensable mental health services will create considerable harm. Any reduction in access to mental health funding will without a doubt impair our effectiveness with our clients.

Many have dismissed the proposed legislation as a “statement of principles” offered to guide the upcoming discussion that will result in a final piece of legislation, which will be very different from what we have presently. If that is the case, then all the more reason for a voice to be raised to make clear that these principles do not serve the best interests of the most vulnerable, and in the long run, threaten the well-being of all. To offer the elimination of essential services as part of a negotiation tactic without an appreciation of the worry and concern that it raises for vulnerable people is cruel. The need for unfettered access to affordable and quality mental health services saves lives and safeguards the interests of our communities. To deny it or somehow make it more challenging to access or afford it is a statement to those in need that their lives are not valued and perhaps even dispensable.

In spite of what clearly is an array of issues that has captured the attention of legislators and policymakers in our nation’s capital, during this month of May, all are encouraged to reach out to their respective legislators and ask them to support the inclusion of mental health services in any healthcare legislation.

Seven Expert Tips on How to Help a Family or Friend Experiencing Domestic Violence

Woman sitting alone and depressed

Editor’s Note:  For those readers who recently watched the hit HBO series “Big Little Lies,” you may still be reeling from the shocking domestic violence scenes  that revealed that domestic violence can be present where it is least suspected.  Unfortunately domestic violence is a reality for all too many.  The statistics are chilling:  On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And one in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.

-by Natalia Hughes

Most of us personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence. As a result, it may be difficult to know what to do.  It may also be very upsetting that someone you  care about is hurting.

Friends or loved ones who experience domestic violence may be feeling hopeless or experience overwhelming fear and or guilt.  They may also feel conflicting emotions about the abuser.   Our instincts make us believe that we need to protect our friends or loved ones. However this can become dangerous because we are not part of the abusive relationship and as outsiders looking in, we can potentially cause more harm. For example, telling our friends or loved ones to leave a relationship when it is abusive can cause more harm for victim who may later chose to return to the abuser and be punished for leaving.  Other times, someone who goes back to an abusive relationship may be pushed away from family and friends, and become even more isolated.

What, therefore, should you do if someone you know is in this situation?  I am a firm believer that knowledge holds power.  In my field of work as a marriage family therapist, many of my clients present with current domestic violence or have a history of it in their relationships. Oftentimes, my client report feeling unheard, lost in the navigation as to where to turn for help, and devalued as a human.  Gaining knowledge and information is often the turning point and pathway to getting out of an abusive relationship.  Many of my clients have said that they would have left sooner if they’d known what resources were available for them.

Here are tips on how to be supportive, mindful and empowering to someone who may be experiencing domestic violence.

Be available if the person wants to open up to discuss their abuse.  For an abuse victim, it takes great courage to begin to talk about what is going on.  Lending your ear can empower them to eventually seek a safe and caring environment.

Don’t judge. It’s human to want to judge others; however, this has the power to take away a victim’s confidence and therefore lessen the drive to leave an abusive relationship.  Often we don’t even mean to judge, but it comes through in what we say, for example when you ask, “Why haven’t you left the relationship already?”  Keep in mind that there may be several reasons why the individual feels they cannot leave (the spouse is the primary wage earner, for example), even if it is difficult for others to understand.

Believe what is being shared with you. Sometimes we may question what a person is telling us.   However, no one knows what a relationship is like except for the people living it.  Showing or expressing doubts about what you are being told can cause the other person to feel devalued and to stop confiding in you.  Instead, try to listen with an open mind.

Don’t suggest or push suggestions of what you think the person should do (i.e. leave the abuser). This only adds pressure, and does not empower the individual to learn, grow or decide on their own.  Instead, reassure the person that the abuse is not their fault and that nothing they have done justifies violence against them.

Make it your focus to support the person and build their confidence and resource base.  The more victims of abuse know, the more empowered they become.  Often, the abuser tries to manipulate the victim by telling them that if they leave, they’ll be on their own and no one can help them or that they will get their children taken away.  Knowledge helps victims see they do have options and that the abuser is wrong.  Two resources to share:  1) LA County.  Dialing 211 for LA County provides everything from domestic violence emergency shelters to local agencies that can help with food restraining orders, babysitting, and transportation. LA County also has a toll- free 24- hour hotline:  1-800-978-3600. 2)  House of Ruth, a domestic violence agency  in the San Gabriel Valley at 909-988-5559.  This number will connect people to a crisis hotline.

Recognize that it takes a while to help someone understand what they are going through and even longer to decide what to do about it.  It is very difficult for victims to find the strength and courage to navigate away from their abuser.  Coming to terms with the abuse and how to handle it is a long process.

Lastly, don’t blame yourself for not being able to help a loved one or family. What keeps someone in an abusive relationship is strong and complex and sometimes we do not have the understanding or tools to break this cycle. Sometimes knowledge and empowerment can be enough to help someone escape abuse, but other times, no matter how hard you try or how present you are for that person, it is just a decision the individual is not ready to make.

As a therapist, understanding human behavior is my profession. However, even I cannot understand how experiences and situations such as abuse is hard-wired in the human mind. In the end, what I do know, however, is that abusive relationships are proof of the incredible power people can have over each other.


–Natalia, who received a master’s degree in Marriage Family Therapy from the University of Phoenix, is a CalWORKs therapist intern with Hillsides in our Family Resource Centers, Pomona.   CalWORKs is a state-wide program that provides employment services and other benefits to families in need.   

Natalia is a firm believer that the more we strive to learn, the more we will grow individually and as a culture. Her greatest passion is to teach others to continue to grow on their self-journey of discovery.  “I enjoy helping my clients find healthy perceptions of themselves, fortify their loving relationships, and apply self-growth in order to be balanced individuals,” she says.



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