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May 5, 2008

Finding every child’s strength

How United Way’s support of Clifford Beers Guidance Clinic helps children recover from trauma and find ways to thrive.

At the Clifford W. Beers Guidance Clinic, a nonprofit psychiatric, community-based mental health agency, clinicians are more than just one-hour-a-week counselors for children, adolescents and their families.

“We try to solve the whole picture, not just treat the child,” says Kate Dombrowski, Events and Marketing Coordinator at Clifford Beers. “We look for the strength in the family.”

Many of the children seen at Clifford Beers suffer from mental health challenges like depression and anxiety because of trauma like sexual abuse or violence. Those children are at greater risk for truancy, drug abuse, academic failure and criminal activity.

Clifford Beers’ specialized, holistic approach helps make a huge difference in the lives of those served by the clinic. But finding a family’s strongest member may be a bit of a challenge. “The family’s strength may not necessarily be a parent. It may be an aunt or an outside person,” says Kate. That was the case with Kevin*. At about eight years old, young Kevin’s parents were facing life-threatening illnesses and the stress from that caused him to act out. He was having major difficulties in school and at home and the clinician could tell that he needed more than just regular therapy.

“He needed an outside force,” Kate says. “So his clinician connected him with a big brother.” That big brother was a local college student who took his role as a big brother quite seriously. He brought Kevin to his house and introduced him to his family. “He showed him what a ‘normal’ family experience was like. He integrated the boy in his home life and took him on outings.”

Kevin made a huge turnaround. “This big brother finally gave this little boy someone to look up to.”

“Therapy isn’t just a one hour session,” Kate says. “The clinicians are an advocate for a child. They want to find what will make a difference in the child’s life.”

That’s just what they did for little Megan who was struggling in school and couldn’t find her niche socially or intellectually. “Her strength was in the arts,” Kate says, “so we connected her with an outside art organization and that really made a difference in her life.”

Often the children who visit Clifford Beers have gone from foster home to foster home. “The clinician might be the only constant factor in the child’s life,” Kate says. “So it’s important that the clinician find the child’s strength and help collaborate with others to make the most of that strength.”

Finding that strength and focusing on it can be what helps a child truly thrive. And the therapy can be more effective if the child begins to feel positively about him or herself.

To measure how their young patients are faring during and after therapy, the clinicians at Clifford Beers gathered six months of data on the treatment of 30 sexually abused children and their non-offending parents.

They wanted to know if the children had an increased sense of security and they found that 98% of the children were better at tolerating discussion regarding sexual abuse. 60% of the children learned that the sexual abuse wasn’t their fault, and 90% could identify the ways their behavior changed before, during and after the sexual abuse.

The clinicians also wanted to understand if their work with the parents could decrease the amount of miscommunication and conflict in those families. Clinicians were able to help 87% of the non-offending parents understand the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse. And 80% of the parents learned to discuss the sexual abuse without blaming the child.

Lastly, the Clifford Beers clinicians were hoping that the therapy and its benefits would help the children avoid troubling behaviors such as social isolation, truancy and inappropriate school relationships. During their study, they found that the children were indeed having an easier time at school. 63% of them had at least two close friends, 83% were attending school regularly and 63% were performing at or above average in their school work.

It’s important for any social agency to ensure their treatments are effective. Clifford Beers’ careful research and outcomes assessment makes them an agency that United Way is proud to support.

Not only do the clinicians help find and focus on the strength of the child and his or her family, they ensure that the family learns to communicate effectively and to leave the clinic feeling healthier and happier. It is this kind of crucial, life changing work that helps children recover from trauma and avoid the risks they would otherwise face because of their troubling experiences.

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of children and their families.

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