UCLA, VA launch first-of-its-kind family wellness center, new legal clinic for veterans

Chancellor Gene Block greets 4-year-old who led the Pledge of Allegiance at UCLA-VA launch. (all photos by Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

For veterans at risk of homelessness, the tipping point can be as trivial as a jaywalking ticket.

Too often, a veteran can’t afford to pay the fee for that ticket, and then can’t get to court to explain the circumstances — perhaps because of a lack of access to public transportation, an inability to miss a day of work or crippling depression. Late-payment fines are tacked on to the original fine. A court warrant, a revoked driver’s license and a ruined credit history follow.

What might have seemed like a trivial citation has spiraled into a serious obstacle to being approved for housing, finding employment, driving to doctor’s appointments and reintegrating into civilian life.

Those situations are destabilizing and surprisingly common for veterans, sometimes contributing to homelessness and mental illness. That’s part of why UCLA and the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System have partnered to open a new legal clinic and a wellness center; a program focusing on homelessness is currently in development and is scheduled to open soon.

The expanded UCLA–VA partnership aims to fill gaps in care, especially by going beyond the superficial symptoms of the challenges veterans face and treating the problems at their roots.

Guests at formal launch of new UCLA-VA assistance centers located at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. Left to right: Tess Banko, director, UCLA VA Veteran Family Wellness Center; Matt Collier, emcee; U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu; Steve Young, deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, Department of Veterans Affairs; UCLA Chancellor Gene Block; Ann Brown, director, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System; Jonathan Varat, chief UCLA liaison to Veterans Affairs; and Patricia Lester, UCLA professor.

The new family wellness center is the first facility on a VA campus to offer resilience services for veterans’ families. UCLA staff provides parenting classes, caregiver support and other training to meet the unique needs of military families. At the legal clinic, professors and students from the UCLA School of Law help veterans address tickets and access their health and education benefits. Both opened in August on the West L.A. VA campus.

“UCLA and the VA have a powerful partnership spanning 70 years,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “Working with the VA to help serve veterans continues to be one of our signature objectives and a key part of our mission of teaching, research and service. By collaborating to build these three centers and embed them into the fabric of the VA campus, we’re expanding and strengthening our ability to give veterans the care they deserve.”

The centers are a key part of UCLA’s 10-year, $16.5 million commitment to the VA, and they are intended to operate indefinitely. The expanded partnership, which was cemented thanks to the West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016, includes a suite of UCLA programs and services at the VA, such as:

• The UCLA VA Veteran Family Wellness Center

• The UCLA School of Law Veterans Legal Clinic

• The VA UCLA Center of Excellence for Training and Research in Veteran Homelessness and Recovery Revival of the Veterans Garden

• Movie nights, batting practice, seats to baseball games and other activities at Jackie Robinson Stadium, in addition to fair-market rent

• UCLA Recreation classes in creative writing, photography, gardening and exercise

“VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System is excited to partner with UCLA to provide legal, wellness and other services to veterans and their families at the West Los Angeles Medical Center campus,” said Ann Brown, director of Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. “The collaboration with UCLA is a perfect example of a community partnership that offers valuable resources to veterans, including family-dynamic life skills, that greatly improve the lives of veterans, children and their families.”

The services can be a national model for veteran care at VA campuses, said Jonathan Varat, the chief liaison between UCLA and the VA.

“It’s important that these services actually occur on the VA campus so they’re accessible, veterans see that these services exist, and others see that they can be replicated across the VA system,” said Varat, a former dean of UCLA Law who also served in Vietnam.

Family wellness center

The Veteran Family Wellness Center breaks new ground by bringing family-centered care to a VA campus, said Tess Banko, the center’s director. In the center’s bright, colorful offices, the toy kitchens and shelves of children’s books routinely surprise veterans who visit for the first time.

“The VA health care system traditionally has worked with individual veterans, not families and children,” she said, adding that family can be a veteran’s most crucial support system.

The Veteran Family Wellness Center operates under the auspices of UCLA’s Nathanson Family Resilience Center. Its services are largely based on a program called Families OverComing Under Stress, which offers direction on building wellness and resilience skills and has been successfully deployed at more than 20 residential military bases worldwide. The model was developed by Patricia Lester, the Jane and Marc Nathanson Family Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. 

“We’re part of a larger wellness effort focused on whole health,” said Banko, a social worker and Marine Corps veteran. “There’s a growing recognition, especially in light of the opioid crisis, that you need alternatives to pharmacology and psychology. With the continuation of over 15 years of war, there’s a shift toward prevention, whereas before it was treating symptoms.”

The center is currently working with more than 20 families, and the staff has already helped dozens more through services that are available by videoconference. The resilience training — geared toward couples, families, children, parents, caregivers, women veterans and others — helps families prepare for problems before they reach crisis points.

“Resilience is the wellspring that keeps us all going,” Banko said, speaking in part from her own experiences with post-traumatic stress, the suicide of her first husband and coping with the multiple deployments of her second husband.

At the center, families learn how to help children cope with a parent’s upcoming deployment; couples gain insights about how to live together again after months apart. The staff helps veterans who are facing post-traumatic stress, which can be passed on to family members, or are struggling with memories of trauma, military sexual trauma or painful losses. Many visitors are homeless or are disconnected from their families and need communication skills to reconnect.

Staff can easily refer clients to additional VA programs, like yoga, in the same building, or to workshops in the healthy teaching kitchen downstairs, where they can learn about nutrition while practicing communication skills and working cooperatively. The program also recommends other VA services and other partner organizations across Los Angeles.

Veterans legal clinic

At the legal clinic, UCLA law students are finding out just what a challenge it can be to navigate a real case, said Sunita Patel, the program’s faculty director.

“They tell me that they can’t imagine how intimidating it must feel for their clients, and that’s exactly the kind of reflection we want them to have,” said Patel, an assistant professor of law. “That’s why having legal representatives who can advocate for former service members is so important.”

Will Watts (center) with a veteran and UCLA Law student (photo by Bill Kisliuk/UCLA)

Students focus on helping vets appeal for and receive health and education benefits, or address outstanding citations for minor offenses like jaywalking, driving without proof of insurance, or turning right at a no-right-on-red sign — work that not only fills a critical need for veterans, but also provides valuable skills for the students.

“The daunting court process to resolve a ticket and the voluminous documentation needed to secure disability benefits should not be a barrier to maintaining a job or obtaining housing,” said Will Watts, the center’s co-director. “Our veterans have given so much to this country already. We’ve touched a lot of individuals and had the opportunity to begin to get a sense of their legal needs.”

Watts said he hopes that input from local veterans will help refine the services based on veterans’ specific legal needs as the center grows. Although the seven students working there can only take a handful of cases at a time, the center has developed a guide for referring veterans to other agencies for aid that falls beyond its scope or capacity.

So far, the clinic has assisted more than 60 veterans, including one whose citation case was successfully dismissed. As the work continues, Patel said, UCLA will graduate more students who can advocate for veterans.

Homelessness and recovery

A third center, which will tackle the linked problems of veteran homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues, will unite the clinical wisdom of VA staff, the research expertise of UCLA and the insight of veterans who have experienced those struggles.

“These interconnected challenges make it very difficult for these veterans to overcome homelessness,” Varat said. “UCLA has a world-class psychiatric department that will help train VA staff to work with this vulnerable population to the point where they can actually live in the community.

“That’s being done to some extent already, but we believe we have to do even better to end homelessness, and to promote health, recovery and community integration for all veterans.”

Over time, the center will develop best practices that can be applied to VA systems nationwide. The center’s director will be VA clinical psychologist Sam Tsemberis, and its research division will be headed by UCLA faculty, overseen by Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of UCLA’s Semel Institute.

“UCLA and the VA have been neighbors for a long time, and we’ve built a very good collaborative relationship,” Varat said. “At the most basic level, we are part of this community, and we want to serve it. On a larger scale, we hope to demonstrate how these centers improve family resilience and the treatment of the homeless and mentally ill and people with substance abuse. Those practices can be a model disseminated throughout the country.”

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