Healing from Trauma

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Tania Edgehill
The Family Center's Clinical Initiatives Help Children Recover from Trauma

Healing from TraumaEach year, more than 900,000 children in the United States experience physical or sexual abuse, community or domestic violence, neglect or abandonment. Many of these traumatic incidents occur within the caregiving system that is supposed to protect children. Without treatment, children exposed to trauma may face a lifetime of behavioral and emotional problems, including oppositional disorders, attachment difficulties, depression, school problems, and even suicide attempts. But with appropriate, trauma-focused mental health treatment, they can heal and lead successful lives.

For four years, 15-year-old Trina* was abused by a family member. When authorities discovered the abuse, she and her two younger sisters, who were not abused, were removed from their home and placed in foster care with their maternal grandmother. The grandmother, Mrs. J., a Baltimore resident, now has legal custody of the girls.

Trina's experiences caused her to become frightened, withdrawn, and struggle in school. It also led her to feel ashamed and to blame herself for the abuse. "Whenever Trina tried to talk about her experiences, she would get stomach pains and freeze up," says Mrs. J. "She thought everyone would hate her and not understand her."

The Kennedy Krieger Institute Family Center (KKFC) serves more than 1,000 children like Trina every year. For two decades, KKFC has helped children and their families recover from the traumatic impact of abuse, neglect and exposure to violence through comprehensive, high-quality, clinic- and community-based mental health services.

Trina began treatment with a KKFC therapist, Monica Beltran, LCSW-C, who is trained in trauma-focused interventions. She learned to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touching and to understand and talk about her feelings. She also learned when to ask for help and where to seek it.

In just a year, Trina has made tremendous progress. She now speaks openly about her trauma and has healthier relationships with her sisters, grandmother and peers. Her grades have improved significantly. Mrs. J. is grateful for the treatment Trina has received at the Family Center. "I have my granddaughter back," she says. "Trina is happy and laughing again. She is excited about life and school."

In addition to providing services in Baltimore City, KKFC is working with a national network of trauma centers to improve the standard of and access to care for children exposed to trauma. In October 2003, it joined the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), a federally funded initiative designed to enhance treatment of traumatized children in the United States. "We received a four-year, $1.6 million grant from the Center for Mental Health Services, which is part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)," says Dr. Elizabeth Thompson, Project Director for the Family Center's NCTSN Program. "We are one of 44 recognized centers in the United States, which has given us the opportunity to establish collaborative relationships with other experts in the field of childhood trauma."

As a member of NCTSN, the Family Center is involved in a three-part project. The first component, led by Principal Investigator Dr. Harolyn Belcher, tests the effectiveness of specialized interventions for children who have experienced trauma who also had intrauterine drug exposure. The second component involves the implementation of an outcomes management system designed to evaluate treatment progress of children receiving services at the Family Center.

The third component strives to eliminate barriers to care through the work of a community advisory board, led by Quanta Pierce, Outreach Director of the Family Center. The board includes leaders of child welfare, child advocacy and mental health programs, as well as a caregiver and youth representatives. In July, the board launched the Healing from Trauma Project: Community and Parent Awareness Campaign in West Baltimore. To help fund the campaign, The Family Center received a $17,000 grant from the Safe Start Initiative and the Thomas Wilson Foundation.

As part of the campaign, two parent focus groups were conducted in West Baltimore to identify why mental health care is not regularly sought for children exposed to trauma. It became clear that resources often go underutilized because families adapt to their unsafe living environments and try to resolve their children's problems on their own. Campaign leaders plan to design brochures to help caregivers recognize behaviors associated with trauma and to provide them with resources.

Similar material will also be developed to reach teens affected by trauma. Also, the Kennedy Krieger Resource Network Information and Referral Line will receive calls from families and refer them to mental health resources and support services within the Baltimore area.The Family Center has also trained 700 mental health professionals, child welfare staff, teachers, physicians, foster parents and professional groups since 2003. Helen Kimmel, Director of the Family Center, says that "traumatized children can come to the attention of schools, pediatricians and even mental health providers with a confusing array of behaviors that may have been adaptive as they learned to live with abuse or neglect. Failure to intervene with specific knowledge about trauma may result in inappropriate or inadequate care."

Mrs. J. is grateful she learned about KKFC's services from her granddaughter's social worker. "If it weren't for Trina's social worker," she says, "I couldn't have known where to turn for help. The Center helped in ways I couldn't, and I would definitely recommend it to other parents."

For more information, please call 443-923-5900 or visit www.kennedykrieger.org

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