When a pandemic hits, and suddenly nothing is the same, it’s a sobering opportunity to take a deep breath and to take stock. It’s not the time to focus on fear and panic but rather a unique opportunity to identify how exactly your organization can be of service during times of extreme stress. As a nonprofit, our mission does not change. Rather than spiraling down in anxiety and fear of the unknown, we see the chance to examine every area of our work to find ways for our unique skills to benefit the community, now and in the uncertain future.
At Center for Child Counseling, we specialize in childhood trauma and building a more trauma-informed community. We are in the business of Fighting ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). We are not a food bank or a homeless outreach program, although we’re happy to partner with other agencies to help our clients secure those services. What we do best is work with children and families impacted by trauma by helping them to build practical skills and strengthen their own resilience. Almost everybody can use this kind of help in the current climate! So, where can we turn our efforts while continuing to operate with laser focus on our mission?
It all comes back to basics. Children raised in homes of intense, sustained stress can have their neurological development impaired. Trauma can affect the lifelong mental and physical health of growing children. Right now, our children are experiencing extreme stress. Even normally stable households may be facing unexpected circumstances like unemployment or problems paying bills for the first time. We know that rates of domestic violence and child abuse rise when stress increases.
Our mission, now and for many years to comes, will be to cope with the fallout of this pandemic on our children and families.
We’ve looked at the full spectrum of need in our area of expertise and identified the places where our unique skills can be a part of the solution. From individual children, to families, to parent-teachers, to the community in general, we’re working every day in the most innovative ways possible to share our knowledge and deepen our impact.
…Switching to Telehealth
Several years ago, we saw the benefit of exploring telehealth. Nonprofits who don’t embrace technology will not survive. We secured a grant from Quantum Foundation and partnered with Dr. Eugenia Millender to conduct a pilot roll-out of a telehealth platform. At that time, ten senior staff members were identified as champions for this work. The timing could not have been more opportune. When the Coronavirus pandemic hit and schools closed, those ten employee champions immediately began training our full complement of staff on the telehealth platform. We pivoted quickly to the new telehealth model, continuing to serve our clients and tackle our waiting list.
There were challenges. Some parents struggled with barriers to care like an unfamiliarity with technology, unreliable internet service, and difficulty executing the required permissions and consents to receive services. Our skilled therapists, who are usually hands-on and fully engaged physically in their Play Therapy sessions, now had to rely on other techniques like drawing, music, and remote games to interact with their clients.
Even over the short time of a few weeks, people are becoming more used to online interactions and more familiar with video conferencing technology. In the past, when a child was introduced into the child welfare system via Childnet, only 49-50% of families attended in-person therapy sessions. That has risen to 90-95% now that a virtual option is available to them. It’s been a steep learning curve and will continue to be one, although we believe telehealth will, in some way, augment our traditional services for a portion of our clients when things return to a more normal state.
…Making an Impact with Individual Children
As we work with our clients, we’re seeing the uncertainty and fear of Coronavirus manifest itself. One client recently disclosed to his therapist during a session that he had a degree of suicidal ideation related to body image issues. She was able to process the issues, screened him for his current level of risk, created a safety plan (with a list of triggers, coping skills, steps to take/numbers to contact, if needed, etc.). The therapist then had a conference call with the boy and his mother to share the plan and go over ways to ensure safety. The boy’s mood was positive at the end of the session and he expressed hope about his goals and future progress. The therapist conducted regular phone check-ins over the next few days and will follow up regularly, as needed. Since isolation and altered routines can exacerbate existing conditions, we’re vigilantly guarding all our children’s well-being and we’re equipping parents to be vigilant, too.
…Offering Free Help to Families
The hunger for sound advice from experts in the mental health field has skyrocketed as families look for answers to emerging dynamics they haven’t encountered before. The changing structure of everyday life has turned relationships topsy-turvy. Anxiety and stress among all family members is on the rise. For this reason, we’ve made many of our Institute for Clinical Training online learning modules available for free. These workshops offer practical guidance from licensed mental health professionals on everyday topics that are immediately useful to parents and families, including:
• How to Help My Child Listen
• How to Structure Your Child’s Day for Success
…Providing Support to New Parent-Teachers
Unexpectedly, millions of parents across the country find themselves as full-time teachers amid the pandemic. Center for Child Counseling already works with teachers in Palm Beach County. We’re co-located in 22 schools as well as childcare and community centers, so we are familiar with the stresses and needs of professional educators. But the unexpected situation of thousands of inexperienced and stressed-out parent-teachers posed a new challenge. For anyone in a position of teaching (or simply being with) a child, we have updated our manual entitled “A Way of Being with Children: Managing Feelings and Behaviors in the Classroom and Beyond”. Every parent in the country will benefit from the vital, practical information the guide provides on attitude and acceptance, childhood development, limit setting, and managing behavior.
…Strengthening Community Supports
In times of increased stress, we see a rise in domestic violence, substance abuse, and as a result a rise in the number of children being removed from their homes. Housing teens removed from their families amid a pandemic, especially where social distancing is required, is a huge challenge. The Department of Fish and Wildlife, which runs summer camp programs, will be taking care of children in Okeechobee this summer, but they knew their staff and counselors would need help to work with children who may be traumatized and require extra attention beyond the needs of an average camper. In partnership with the Department of Children and Families, the Director of our Childhood Trauma Response Team, Anne-Marie Brown, responded immediately by providing training for these care providers. This vital expertise will help these traumatized children from being traumatized again.
In every way possible, we are #FightingACEs and Coronavirus in a way that makes the most sense to us as a childhood mental health agency. The fight will not be over soon – not when “safer at home” directives are removed, and not next year when Covid-19 is hopefully under greater control. The implications of the first few months of 2020 will be felt for a very long time. We can only keep doing what we do, helping each child, each family, each new parent-teacher, and the community at large to understand Adverse Childhood Experiences and learn better ways of being with children. Our message is simple and clear; in times of prosperity and of crisis, it remains the same: The future must be faced, so let’s face it armed with knowledge, hope, and compassion.
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