February 23, 2013

Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton supports Stark County Traumatized Child Task Force

As written in the winter 2013 edition of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton's newsletter, the vision of the Stark County Traumatized Child Task Force is that one day there will be no traumatized children in Stark County. That’s a sizable goal that will take time to achieve. But until then, this singularly dedicated group is working to prevent trauma, identify it early and treat children affected by it.

Judge Howard Leads the Way

Judge Michael Howard presides over juvenile and domestic relations cases in the Family Court Division of the Stark County Court of Common Pleas. He was instrumental in developing the Task Force and serves as its chair. He has incorporated trauma screening into the standard procedures of Stark County's juvenile court.

Children Who Have Been Traumatized: One Court’s Response is a 2008 article that appeared in The Juvenile and Family Court Journal. Judge Howard co-wrote the article with local clinical psychologist Dr. Robin Tener. It profiles some of the cases seen in Stark County Family Court, noting that “the behavior that landed the juvenile in trouble is typically just the tip of the iceberg.” Many times, trauma has played a hidden but significant role.

What is Trauma?

A traumatic experience is an event that threatens someone’s life, safety, or well-being. Potentially traumatic events in a child’s life can include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; abandonment or neglect; domestic violence; mental illness; or substance abuse. These events leave a lasting legacy, as is made plain in the article: “...It is highly unlikely that children will, on their own, recover from the terrible things that happen in childhood. It is more likely that they will grow up self medicating and engaging in risky behavior.” Engaging in that risky behavior makes it far more likely that a child will end up in Judge Howard’s courtroom.

Many juvenile cases aren’t at all simple or straightforward, and addressing and appropriately treating trauma is really the key to ensuring that disadvantaged youth are set on the right path. The trauma screenings help to uncover the life circumstances that ultimately resulted in the bad behaviors.

How the Task Force Came About—and Where it’s Going

In 2001, the family court hosted a presentation on the effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress. About 25 of the attendees felt strongly enough about addressing the subject that they created the Stark County Traumatized Child Task Force.

Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton representatives have been involved with the task force since its inception. The foundation has also supported the hiring of a part-time director and funded efforts to identify and appropriately treat traumatized children. The foundation also provides staff support, funds and in-kind support, and hosts many task force meetings. At the foundation’s board meeting in August, Judge Howard was invited to give a presentation on the task force and its work. In addition to foundation and court participation, representatives from many local agencies and organizations have participated, including the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, local schools, the Juvenile Attention System, United Way, Stark County Children Services and many others determined to make a difference.

The task force has worked to raise awareness about child trauma and surveyed how trauma was being addressed in Stark County. They found that in many cases, severe trauma was not being treated, even when affected children were receiving counseling. There was a need for specialized child trauma treatment training for local mental health providers.

The task force brought that training to Stark County. In some cases, Judge Howard and Dr. Tener found that the training was a major influencing factor: In One Court’s Response, they state:

Some agencies have integrated trauma awareness into their entire culture. These agencies have begun trauma screening and referral to appropriately trained providers literally at the front desk of the organization. The receptionist is trained to ask the right questions and to immediately set up appointments with an appropriately trained therapist.

To refine and enhance clinicians’ skills, the task force also established a learning collaborative that meets monthly, and an online mailing list to disseminate articles and information. The results so far are promising, but it will be some time before all Stark County clinicians are as aware as those participating in the learning collaborative.

In addition to building capacity to treat trauma, the task force works to increase community awareness about trauma and its effects on behavior. Their goal is to ensure that all those who serve children (including child welfare, juvenile justice, schools and medical providers) understand trauma, screen for it and address it appropriately.

While it’s still true that in many cases only the tip of the iceberg will ever be seen, the Traumatized Child Task Force is working to understand—and address—the rest of the iceberg, to give Stark County’s youth their best chance at healthy, productive lives.

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From its Cleveland headquarters, the Sisters of Charity Health System provides oversight, leadership and strategic direction to more than 20 organizations responding to community needs in Canton and Cleveland, Ohio, and South Carolina.

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