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Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services CEO leaves post for Vermont

After less than three years as president and CEO of one of L.A.’s most longstanding social service providers, Louis Josephson has announced he’s leaving Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services for a new job at a mental health center in Brattleboro, Vt.
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November 24, 2015

After less than three years as president and CEO of one of L.A.’s most longstanding social service providers, Louis Josephson has announced he’s leaving Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services for a new job at a mental health center in Brattleboro, Vt. 

“Vista is a very special and unique organization. All the things that drew me here still exist,”  Josephson said. 

In spite of a $30 million endowment and its legacy in Southern California, the nonprofit, like many others in the field, has struggled with insufficient support from public agencies. Much of Vista’s work is paid for through rigorous fundraising and by generous private donors. For example, the completion of a newly expanded vegetable garden, overseen by Josephson, was bankrolled by L.A. billionaire John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of hair-care empire Paul Mitchell Systems. The garden helps Vista provide horticulture therapy, as well as being a source of whole, quality foods for students at Vista’s school.

“The biggest frustration I have is that our government, our county or state, does not provide enough resources for us to do the kind of quality care that we do,” Josephson said. “Every year we’re just squeezed tighter and tighter.”

Vista Del Mar operated at a deficit of about $1.2 million in 2013 and about $1.8 million the year before that, according to public tax records made public on the website, Guidestar. Josephson said the board can turn to the endowment in times of need to subsidize budget shortfalls, but this can’t continue forever.

“At some point, we may have to make hard decisions about whether we can continue certain programs,” Josephson said. 

Vista Del Mar first opened as a Jewish orphanage in 1908 but has grown throughout the decades into a multifaceted nonsectarian operation that provides mental health treatment, counseling and therapy and adoption services, as well as a school for students with learning or behavioral issues.

The approximately 18-acre Vista campus on the Westside of Los Angeles also maintains satellite offices in Santa Monica and Hollywood and employs clinicians who operate out of the Los Angeles and Santa Monica school districts. This year’s budget is about $44 million, and Josephson estimated that on an average day across all of Vista’s sites and programs, more than 900 children, teens and their family members receive some type of service from the organization.

Reflecting on his 2 1/2 years at Vista, Josephson said he’s proud of the way the nonprofit has modernized services in the campus’ residential treatment program. Vista has “invested heavily” in training residential staff in dialectical behavioral therapy, a type of treatment typically available at higher-end programs but not in county-funded ones, Josephson said. This has given the 48 kids enrolled in Vista’s program, many of them with self-harming behaviors, access to “state-of-the-art” treatment similar to what would be provided at “a very expensive, fancy place in Malibu,” Josephson said.

Elaine Hall is an independent contractor who worked at Vista for nine years. There, she introduced and ran a variety of programs, including The Miracle Project, a theater, music and art program for kids and teens with autism. Hall left Vista in June of this year and still speaks fondly of Josephson, describing him as a “visionary” and “strong leader.” 

“Louis wants excellence in every single program,” Hall said. 

Vista’s future will be in the hands of Josephson’s successor, as he is headed to Vermont, where he’ll serve as president and CEO at the Brattleboro Retreat, a psychiatric hospital for adults and youth. Similar to Vista Del Mar, it provides multiple social services including counseling, addiction services and school for kids with special needs, but Brattleboro employs about twice as many employees and has a budget of closer to $66 million, Josephson said.

Prior to Josephson’s stewardship, Vista was led by Elias Lefferman, who worked at the nonprofit for 37 years and was president and CEO for 10. Josephson’s decision to leave Vista Del Mar “came as a surprise,” Vista’s chairman of the board, Philip Stein, said. But, he said, “We certainly appreciate all that he did for us at Vista.” The board has assembled a search committee to find his replacement, and it’s not a choice they expect to make quickly.

“It’s not something that’s an overnight decision,” Stein said. 

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