North County

Family Service Agency Strengthening Family & Services in North County

Featured in County Connections Report: Supporting Wellness in Santa Barbara County


In July 2017, Family Service Agency (FSA) merged with the Santa Maria Valley Youth and Family Center (SMVYFC). FSA has served Santa Barbara County since 1899, working to meet the basic needs of vulnerable families. However, prior to the merger, most of its services were only available in South and Mid County, while SMVYFC provided family services in the Santa Maria Valley and surrounding areas.

As a result of the merger, the organizations combined their staff and boards to serve the entire county. They agreed to operate under the FSA name, but continued using the name “Santa Maria Valley Youth and Family Center” in the Santa Maria Valley to maintain the existing identity. The merger has strengthened family services in Northern Santa Barbara County – a region dealing with relatively high rates of poverty and gang violence – where counseling services are in high demand. The region also has a large immigrant population in need of culturally-inclusive mental health care.

FSA works with all age groups providing services that are holistic and address social and emotional needs.

FSA works with family members of all ages, from babies to seniors. The majority of its resources are directed towards providing basic needs, parent education, and behavioral health services for youth and their families, which helps working families thrive despite the many challenges they face. In Santa Barbara County, and especially in North County, there is a great need for services that support behavioral health for young people.

“Generally speaking, we’re seeing a lot of things that make young people anxious and depressed. Gun violence, domestic violence and cyber bullying are all major issues,” said Lisa Brabo, Executive Director at FSA. “The immigration situation is particularly strong in North County because of the agricultural industry. The fear for many kids that their parents are going to get taken away, and for parents that they will be separated from their kids, is very real. It’s happening quite a lot.”

Parents are also dealing with extremely high-anxiety situations. A large portion of the workforce in North County are agricultural workers, many of whom are immigrants worrying not only about making a living and supporting a family, but about their immigration status as well.

“There are certain aspects of life – finding work, housing costs, raising children, etc. – that make us all anxious. In North County, because of what they have going on with the agricultural industry, the uncertainty of immigration policy, and the prevalence of gang violence, the stressors are even stronger. That’s why mental health services are so important, to help people with coping skills so they can deal with those things,” explained Brabo.

FSA, a recipient of the Santa Barbara Foundation’s Core Support for Basic Needs grant in 2017 and 2018, offers an array of impactful services that provide education and outreach, mental health treatment, and counseling for families in crisis.

According to FSA, “eighty percent of [FSA] services are delivered on school campuses, at community centers or in clients’ homes.” Their school-based counseling consists of counselors embedded in several elementary, junior high, and high schools around the county. FSA also holds counseling sessions at their program sites in Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Carpinteria, Santa Maria and Guadalupe, and counselors make in-home visits for clients in need of more intensive mental health counseling.

FSA runs a number of other community programs, including the Substance Abuse Treatment Program and the Strengthening Families Program. The Strengthening Families Program, which is being rolled out in North County for the first time this year, is a 14-week curriculum that engages youth, along with their parents and siblings.

“The program addresses communication skills, drug and alcohol use, and a lot of other major risk factors that we see. These young people are primarily referred through probation, so we’re able to help them learn and grow through evidence-based practices while strengthening the family unit as a whole,” explained Maria Gutierrez, a Registered Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Counselor at FSA’s Santa Maria location. Gutierrez also works in the Strengthening Families Program. “We’re really excited to offer this service in multiple communities around the county,” she said.

Due to the extremely high demand for FSA’s services, the organization accepts funding from many different sources. FSA has contracts with schools and county agencies like the Department of Social Services and the Department of Behavioral Wellness. It receive grants from the state and federal governments, such as the federal grant it received to provide Mental Health First Aid training to parents and adults who work with youth. But in order to fill the gaps in between those publicly-funded services – to treat clients who walk into their clinics with a time-sensitive, crisis situation – it relies on private funding from organizations like the Santa Barbara Foundation.

“Behavioral health is a really expensive service to provide, which leads to a difficult funding situation for us. We provided behavioral health services to over 700 people last year, which costs millions of dollars, but there are still hundreds out there who need our services,” said Brabo. “So we have to find creative and meaningful ways to help families, and the Santa Barbara Foundation grant funding we’ve received helps us meet that local need.”

To learn more about FSA and how they strengthen family countywide, visit

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