Youthville program new way to help traumatized kids

Child welfare cases often seem like statistics: On an average day in Sedgwick County, more than 1,200 children are cared for by the state because of abuse, neglect or a relinquishment of parental rights.

But each case, each child, is different, says Bruce Perry, one of the world's leading authorities on childhood trauma.

And if you could map their brains -- see the way abuse leaves gaping holes where love and trust should be -- you'd gain insight that could change lives.

That's the idea behind a revolution happening at Youthville, the organization that handles child welfare cases in the Wichita area.

Youthville has joined with Perry, senior fellow of the Houston-based Child Trauma Academy, to adopt a new framework for treating children in foster care, psychiatric residential facilities and other settings. The approach could become a model for other communities.

"We do a great job with what we have and what we know, but I think we can do better," said Shelley Duncan, Youthville's president and chief executive.

"We don't have a comprehensive program that focuses on children with severe attachment problems and trauma. These are really, really tough kids, and they just keep getting tougher."

In coming months, Youthville -- one of the largest child welfare agencies in Kansas -- will adopt Perry's "Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics," or NMT.

Simply, the strategy calls for assessing each child's brain development and finding therapeutic activities -- massage, expressive art therapy, equine therapy or other options -- that match his or her specific needs.

"Some type of trauma has influenced every kid that walks in our door, and most of the parents," said Duncan, who began her career at a maximum security prison.

"If we can understand how trauma affects the very core of a developing brain, we can start to work to overcome those early experiences."

Being accredited by the Child Trauma Academy will take about two years and $470,000, money Youthville received through a federal earmark from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The process began last week with a two-day seminar hosted by Perry. The noted psychiatrist, researcher and author explained his clinical strategy using brain maps along with real-life examples.

He compared diagrams of two brains -- one normal newborn and one newborn with fetal alcohol syndrome -- to show how experiences even before birth can affect brain development and lead to behavior issues later in life.

"Already, you can see differences," Perry said. The baby exposed to alcohol in utero would have trouble regulating his pulse rate and body temperature and may have trouble sucking and swallowing.

Similarly, children who experience severe neglect or abuse often have brains that haven't fully developed. Helping them requires therapies to fill in those gaps before moving on to the next developmental stage or skill, Perry said.

Duncan, the Youthville president, said the organization plans to start a full-service trauma recovery center for children who have experienced severe abuse or neglect, as well as for their families and foster families.

"It isn't so much an intervention as an overall philosophy about how you work with these kids," she said. "It's about meeting them wherever they are and getting them to that next level."

Chris and Tara Loveless have fostered several children and adopted two girls through Youthville.

Tara Loveless said a deeper understanding about how children's brains develop could help her with daughters Brooklyn, 3, and Isabella, 21 months, who were born with addictions to cocaine and marijuana.

"A lot of times with drug or alcohol-affected babies, you might not see issues until they're school age," she said. "Just knowing a little more, getting advice based on research, that would be a big plus."

Many community and governmental agencies have consulted Perry after high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine school shootings, the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Youthville, though, is the largest organization to adopt his clinical strategy, and will likely become a model for other communities and a source for his ongoing research, he said.

"This is an incredible commitment they're making," Perry said during his visit last week. "Creating a community of healing.... Because the health of a community is only going to be as good as the way we treat our kids."