Problems and Promise

Just off Motor Avenue in West Los Angeles, about where cars shoot out from under the 10, a simple sign points the way onto the campus of Vista del Mar Child and Family Services. Go fast and you’ll miss the sign and the 17.5 acres beyond it of bungalows, recreation areas and service buildings.

Through an army of staff and volunteers, Vista del Mar and its five agencies form one of the largest providers of adoption, foster care, psychiatric, crisis intervention and health services in California.

Vista touches thousands of lives. It operates at a constant deficit on a $24 million annual budget. And you can bet Vista — like every social service provider in Los Angeles — is eyeing President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative very, very carefully.

The initiative is controversial, but like most good controversies, the sides are not shaping up quite as you’d expect. Some liberals who ordinarily would be at the barricades defending the separation of church and state wouldn’t mind funneling chunks of government change into their social service programs. Some conservatives, who would ordinarily leap to defend a federal program that recognized the value of religion in American life, don’t want to see their tax dollars go to religious groups they don’t like.

In fact, Bush’s plan to spread "compassionate conservatism" has already created the kind of open religious rancor that, well, the wall between church and state is supposed to help block. In statements on the initiative, Jerry Falwell demeaned the Muslim faith, Pat Robertson slammed the Hare Krishnas and the Anti-Defamation League, and everybody pretty much unloaded on the Church of Scientology and Louis Farrakhan.

By last Monday, the administration was rethinking the most controversial portion of its initiative: a proposal to expand the charitable choice provision of a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton that lets religious charities compete for government welfare dollars.

Bush’s initial proposal called for opening up government funding opportunities from a few programs to more than 100, in areas ranging from after-school programs to community policing. Local Jewish-based charities would like to be among the funded.

Vista del Mar was founded in 1908 as the Jewish Orphans Home, and today its clientele is about 40 percent Jewish. In order to receive the government grants it currently does, Jewish Orphans Home needed to file a DBA under the Vista name.

"We are investigating ways the [faith-based] program might apply to us," said Gerald Zaslaw, Vista’s CEO and president. The majority of Vista’s many services have no religious component, but the Bush proposal set Zaslaw thinking that it might be possible to tease out the ones that do, such as High Holiday services and other specifically religious programming. "It’s going to be tough to separate out the Jewish elements," Zaslaw said.

The same thinking is going on over at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). Upwards of 75 percent of its clients are Jewish, but the counseling and intervention services it provides have no religious component. They can’t: the organization, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, receives about $800,000 annually in federal money. But director Paul Castro figures some of the faith-based funding might be available for specialized services, such as its Orthodox Counseling Program.

Castro worries that the administration’s idea might reverse a time-honored notion of social service providers: meet the clients where they are. "We don’t impose our agency’s underlying spiritual values on the client. It’s about the client, not who we are," he said. "Our concern is this flips it." In other words, a person who is desperate for one type of counseling may have to take it with a dose of the provider’s religion.

That scenario frightens providers, but not enough for them to dismiss the whole program. "You’re going to have to set up some safeguards, but I think there could be tremendous value," said Rabbi Hershey Ten, who founded and directs The Jewish Healthcare Foundation–Avraham Moshe Bikur Cholim (JHF). JHF provides free and subsidized health care and social assistance throughout Los Angeles and California.

Faith-based groups, Ten asserted, can deliver some services more effectively at the local level. They know the needy, and the needy trust them. "This is not a question of separation of church and state," said Ten. "It’s about the best way of delivering a product to the market."

And paying for it. For the people at Gateways Beit T’Shuvah, a residential therapeutic community for Jewish addicts and ex-convicts, the faith-based funding could be a boon. Unlike other social service groups founded or run by members of the Jewish community, Beit T’Shuvah (the House of Return), has a solely Jewish clientele and uses Judaism in its recovery program.

"To me it sounds like what I’ve been waiting for," Beit T’Shuvah director Harriet Rossetto said of the initiative. "We never sought government funding because we remain a Jewish program. Judaism is intrinsic to what we do here, because it enhances the recovery process."

The president’s initiative sounds like just the kind of policy Rossetto said she would oppose if it weren’t for the fact that those she serves would benefit mightily from the extra funding. "Everybody I usually agree with disagrees with me on this," Rossetto said.

Whether those disagreements can be worked out depends on the details of the final faith-based initiative that Bush proposes: what groups will be eligible, how they will be assessed, what they can and can’t do with the funds. As of now, the administration has gone back to the drawing board.

Ultimately, says JFS’s Castro, "it’s hard to tell how the initiative will play out. We’re monitoring it. By the time it gets down to local level, it may look very different."

If it gets down here at all.