Larsen leaving county post to head up Steinberg Institute

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Yolo County’s director of health and human services is moving on.

Karen Larsen, who has served as the Health and Human Services Agency director for six years, has been appointed chief executive officer of the Steinberg Institute, a nonprofit founded by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg to advance public policy and leadership on mental health.

In an email to colleagues on Monday, Larsen said she “wasn’t looking for the opportunity that was presented to me, but it is one that I could not turn down.”

She will take over as CEO at the Steinberg Institute on March 1, leaving behind a legacy of work in Yolo County related to homelessness, child welfare and more.

“Since joining HHSA, her mission has focused on expanded access and services for those in need,” a press release from the county on Wednesday noted.

During her tenure, HHSA’s notable achievements have included permanent supportive housing units increasing by 300 percent with a 100 percent increase planned in the next year; family homelessness at zero for the past four years; achieving public health accreditation; improving permanency timelines in child welfare and recognition as an integrated agency by the state of California allowing for increased financial flexibilities, according to the release.

“Karen Larsen’s dedication, leadership, and service to Yolo County – including two years of facing the challenges of a pandemic – leaves a lasting legacy of work towards the integration of health, social services, and behavioral health services in the county,” said Yolo County Supervisor Angel Barajas, who chairs the Board of Supervisors. “She has successfully helped to bridge barriers across departments and larger systems to improve access and outcomes, in particular for Yolo County’s most vulnerable residents.”

Now she brings those talents to the Steinberg Institute, which was established seven years ago with the vision of creating a system of care in which brain illnesses are addressed with the same urgency and sweep as physical illnesses.

“Karen has a track record of innovation and improving outcomes for California’s most vulnerable,” said Steinberg. “I’m thrilled she is bringing her bold ideas and leadership to the institute at such a critical time for the state’s mental health system.”

Larsen has actually spent more than two decades serving vulnerable residents in Yolo County, beginning as a clinician with CommuniCare Health Centers before advancing to supervisor, manager and finally director. She left CommuniCare in 2014 to become the county’s mental health director and within a year became director of the Adult and Aging Branch at HHSA. A year after that, she was promoted to director of the Health and Human Services Agency, “a role I have cherished over the past six years,” she said in her email to colleagues announcing her resignation.

“It has been my absolute honor and privilege to serve the community in Yolo County for the past 23 years. I am incredibly proud of all we have accomplished since I joined the Yolo team,” said Larsen. “This new position feels like the culmination of my life’s work. I’m looking forward to my work at the Steinberg Institute at this critical time in our state and nation.”

Larsen said that since joining the county in 2014, she has “made it my mission to expand access and services for those in need.

“During my time with (HHSA), we have improved outcomes in many areas such as homelessness, criminal justice, substance use disorders and our children and youth…

“I didn’t accomplish these achievements on my own. In fact, perhaps one of my greatest achievements was the recruitment and retention of such an amazing team of leaders for Health and Human Services. Leading the largest county department, responsible for much of the county’s strategic plan and touching the lives of so many residents, is a weight that was carried on the shoulders of an amazing group of leaders and staff,” she said.

“Each of these individuals has committed themselves to improving the health, safety and economic stability of our community. The past two years have been exceptionally difficult and their commitment has been nothing short of inspirational.”

Going forward, Larsen will be working with the county administrator on transition plans and next steps.

“I hope that all of you will continue to serve the residents of Yolo County,” she told colleagues. “They need you more now than ever. I have every confidence that the agency will be in good hands with our tremendous team of leaders and with all of you.”

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