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Millions for Counseling Riot Victims Went Unspent : Unrest: L.A. County administered program. Critics blame unwieldy federal rules, inefficient agencies.

August 13, 1993|SAM ENRIQUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the wake of the most destructive U.S. riots of the century, federal officials last year earmarked $5.9 million for crisis counseling to aid the thousands of Los Angeles residents who lost loved ones, homes, jobs and businesses.

The money was, at the time, the largest grant for crisis counseling ever issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the first to serve the victims of a man-made disaster.

The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health was designated to administer the money. But six months after the spring, 1992 riots, the county was still struggling to organize the counseling program and had to return nearly half of the grant for failing to spend the money, despite two deadline extensions.

Last November, the county received a second federal grant of $8.4 million for the counseling program. The second grant, which was supposed to expire in August, has been extended until November--to give the county more time to spend it.

The loss of the initial funds, mental health professionals say, delayed counseling services or denied them altogether to residents suffering anxiety and other emotional troubles triggered by the violence in their neighborhoods.

Although thousands received counseling through county and volunteer efforts immediately after the riots, help for thousands of others, many of them children, was put off nine months and longer.

A combination of cumbersome federal requirements and the inefficiency of local agencies, both public and private, squandered the chance to aid many more residents, critics say.

"In terms of immediate response, it was at best inadequate," acknowledged William Arroyo, a psychiatrist and manager of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinic at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. "The Department of Mental Health was trying to use a lot of their own people, but our mental health system is already overwhelmed, and people still had their day-to-day responsibilities. There was a great effort to expand to private agencies, but even those were overwhelmed."

County officials said creating an emergency counseling program, called Project Rebound, for neighborhoods that were already under stress before the outbreak of civil unrest was a quixotic task at best, especially with the city's shortage of bilingual mental health workers.

Moreover, many new immigrants in the riot-affected areas are suspicious of authorities.

Others are reluctant to share their fears with strangers, considering it a sign of weakness, mental health officials said. There are also the longstanding hostilities among different ethnic groups, high unemployment and poverty that helped trigger the unrest in the first place.

"A project like this cannot cure all the ills," said Patricia Mendoza, director of Project Rebound.

The job was made even more difficult when some of the largest neighborhood mental health organizations sought by the county to provide counseling in South-Central Los Angeles either bailed out of the program early or turned down the federal money entirely because of the mountains of complicated paperwork.

"We never accepted the funds because the requirements were too intrusive," said Gloria Nabrit, president of the Kedren Community Mental Health Center. The 27-year-old clinic is the oldest and largest such agency serving South-Central Los Angeles.

"We were trying to address the emergency needs at the moment and we couldn't respond to all those picky, tedious kinds of paperwork and tracking. . . . The feds wanted to include us because were at the heart of the uprising, but they couldn't make us take the money," Nabrit said.

The $8.4 million granted last November is being used to carry on Project Rebound's counseling efforts--which range from classroom seminars and youth art projects to senior citizen discussion groups and individual counseling.

County officials said once they overcame initial delays, Project Rebound grew into an effective counseling campaign that has reached an estimated 100,000 people, about half of whom sought information and referrals.

"My impression is that they are doing a good job," said David Clough, emergency services coordinator in the federal Center for Mental Health Services, which coordinates the disaster relief branch with FEMA.

Tom Kennon, a faculty member in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and a consultant for the project, said Project Rebound, while notable in scope and accomplishment, was stymied by the bureaucrats in charge.

"Anyone could see that Los Angeles was in need of desperate repair; we were emotionally hemorrhaging," he said. "I don't know everything about the county and federal systems, but as an outsider I can see there are too many steps and it needs to be streamlined and made more efficient . . . It was demoralizing to find that funds dried up before people could even start their work."

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