Initiative brings services to young children with trauma

By Pamela Berard
December 1st, 2016

A new grant will help bridge a gap for services to very young children in Connecticut suffering from exposure to trauma.

The Child Health and Development Institute (CHDI) was awarded a five-year, $2 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to expand services to young children in Connecticut suffering from exposure to trauma, including violence, abuse, chronic neglect, loss of a family member, serious accidents and illness.

The grant will fund the Early Childhood Trauma Collaborative initiative. Led by CHDI, the collaborative will partner with the Office of Early Childhood, the Department of Children and Families, the Consultation Center at Yale (evaluator), treatment developers, and nine mental health provider agencies, and is part of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a federal network of 81 funded members and more than 100 affiliates.

For the past decade, CHDI has partnered with state agencies and mental health centers to develop a system of trauma-informed care for school-aged children in Connecticut, but has observed a gap in services for younger children and their families.

“For very young children, there has been a limited availability for mental health services that are specific for children exposed to trauma,” said Jason Lang, Ph.D., CHDI director of dissemination and implementation. “Here in Connecticut, and I think it’s true nationally, as well, there’s been a lot of work to get evidence-based practices for older children in the community, but we still see a pretty big gap for children under 7 on the mental health side.”

The collaborative will increase access to trauma-focused evidence-based practices for children and their families, including: Attachment, Regulation, and Competency; Child Parent Psychotherapy; Child and Family Traumatic Stress Intervention; and Trauma Effect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy.

Traumatic stress on the young can compromise growth and brain development and if left untreated, lead to poorer lifelong outcomes including chronic health and mental health problems, impaired academic performance, and involvement with juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems.

Yet, identifying signs of trauma can be difficult. “It is challenging to diagnose or identify trauma in very young kids because often they are not talking or even if they are talking, they don’t have the ability to convey what it is they are experiencing in terms of trauma,” Lang said. “So we rely on parents or caregivers to describe how their children are reacting or behaving.”

Judith Meyers, Ph.D., CHDI president and CEO, said, “You have to think about it as a two-generation approach. You really are working with parents as much as the children.”

Evidence-based trauma treatment for young children can help support a healthy attachment between the parent and child, but can also be specific to the parents’ own distress. “Because we know that many young children who have trauma or PTSD have parents who also have trauma and PTSD,” Lang said. “Often the best way to help the children is to help the parent.”

The grant will help disseminate evidence-based practices to clinical or outpatient behavioral health agencies. “The grant calls for training 500 providers,” Meyers said. “Mental health clinicians will be trained within these evidence-based practices, with the expectation they will train within their own community.” Training will also be provided for home visitors, child welfare workers and early care and education providers, as the grant aims to build competencies in the broader workforce to be aware of trauma and recognize when it’s shaping a child’s behavior and to know how to talk to parents about it and where to refer them.

“One of the things we are trying to do here is encourage screening of children,” Lang said. “Through this grant, we are working on a short screening tool that could be used by people who are clinicians, or people who are not clinicians.”

The tool will be a version of the Connecticut Trauma Screen, which was developed by CHDI, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, and Yale, and has already been used by behavioral health providers, pediatricians, school staff, child welfare workers and juvenile justice staff to identify children 6-17 who may be suffering from trauma exposure.

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