A Longfellow Elementary School teacher had given her students an assignment to write about two times they had been hurt. It’s an assignment they often enjoy. They get to write about falling off a bike or a ski hill wipe out.
The teacher noticed that one boy who had been doing pretty well in her class wasn’t writing. As she got closer, she saw the boy had tears coming down his face. He had only written one sentence on his paper. It said, “I have been hurt a lot.”
Lisa Holmberg, a licensed social worker for Washburn Center for Children recalled the story during a recent interview. As it turned out, the boy had been living in a home with a lot of domestic violence, she said. At one point, the boy got in between his mom and dad during a fight—scary stuff. He and his mom had moved to a safe place but the boy was still living with the trauma. The writing assignment triggered it.
Holmberg was able to help. Though she works for a nonprofit organization, she had her office right in the school. The Minneapolis Public Schools, Hennepin County and community-based services such as Washburn have partnered to provide mental services at 11 schools. The program is growing. Other community-based agencies providing counseling through school partnerships are La Familia Guidance Center, and the Mental Health Collective. African Aid helps with outreach.
This year, the program will help approximately 400 students. It could expand to 13-15 schools next year. The program is approximately halfway through a 10-year plan and could eventually grow to 20-25 Minneapolis schools, organizers say.
Having community-based providers in the school has several benefits. It eliminates transportation problems. Students are seen more quickly. People like Holmberg can help teachers with training and intervention. And because these independent agencies provide the services, the students’ mental health records are kept separate from their school records.
Services include one-on-one counseling, with parent approval. In the case of the young boy traumatized by the domestic violence, Holmberg, the mom and teacher all got on the same page. “I was able to consult with the teacher around some issues coming up in the classroom,” Holmberg said. “I was able to help with peers.”
Holmberg now supervises school-based services for Washburn Center for Children, which include five Minneapolis schools and five Eden Prairie schools. At the time she worked at Longfellow, 20 of her 22-student caseload had been exposed to some kind of trauma—abuse, neglect or domestic violence. Often they would get referred because of a behavior problem. With counseling, these deeper issues would reveal themselves.
“No wonder they are having a difficult time settling,” she said.
Jim Johnson, director of student support services for Minneapolis Public Schools, has worked with troubled kids in the district since 1987. He believes they do more self harm today than when he started.
“The children I deal with now have, as a group, experienced more traumatic events and oftentimes more repeated traumatic events in their lives,” he said. “I think that has a tremendous impact on their mental health.”
The federal Safe Schools Healthy Students program helped launch the program to bring community-based mental health providers into schools. That federal money ended, but Johnson and others have found ways to keep it going. Some families have insurance. Those third-party payments cover about two-thirds of the cost. Hennepin County contributes money for uninsured children. The program also applies for grants to fill the funding gap.
Initial research suggests that students who have at least four sessions with a community-based mental health specialist in school have statistically significant reductions in suspensions, Johnson said.
Mark Sander, senior clinical psychologist for Hennepin County, said 65 to 70 percent of the students seen in the school-based programs have never received mental health services before. These are not the “worried well,” he said. “They need services.”
Students typically have 11 to 15 counseling sessions, either individually or with their family. “We are able to see the families within a couple of weeks,” Sander said. “In the community, it could be a couple of months before they get in. The access to services has decreased the number of crises.”
One Jefferson school mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said her son was doing well in school but was completely shut down. Her husband was condescending to their son. The son had learned not to ask for help when he got stuck.
“He didn’t want to get put down because he wasn’t understanding,” his mother said. Seeing a La Familia counselor changed that. “My son is more secure now. He is setting himself up for goals and how he will accomplish them.”
Bigger problems loom
If the school-county-nonprofit partnership is a sign of progress, larger forces challenge the well-being of students and their families.
The mortgage crisis means more families are going in and out of shelters. Higher unemployment rates also stress families. For traumatized children, there are fewer county-funded supports. For instance, Hennepin County’s 2009 budget cuts child protection by $4.3 million compared to 2007. That represents a 10 percent budget cut and a 20 percent cut in the number of social workers (337 to 265).
Washburn Center for Children’s day treatment program provides one small window onto other budget problems. Supervisor Lauren Nietz said the program serves kids with complex trauma, which can include parental mental illness and chemical abuse, high mobility, community violence or child abuse. At one extreme, Neitz recalls a second grader in the program who had tried to steal cars and run people over.
Day treatment includes four half-day sessions and home and community visits.
The program strives for developmental repair, Nietz said. With low student-teacher ratios, it tries to build positive adult relationships with kids.
“Often, their parents have grown up the same way,” Nietz said. When children reach out for support, “their parents can’t give back. You have this intergenerational trauma in very stressed communities.”
Nietz said cuts in Medical Assistance Targeted Case Management have cut into the program’s community support. Further, suburban school districts are cutting bus service to Washburn as part of broader budget tightening. Washburn’s day treatment service area is shrinking.
Child protection refers some children to day treatment, and child protection cuts affect the program, too, Nietz said. Child protection is closing cases too soon and that hurts the therapeutic relationship with the family, she said. If child protection kept cases open longer, they could enforce parent participation when needed. “Now, when they close too early, we have to chase the families.”
LuAnn Schmaus of Hennepin County public affairs said child protection managers have not changed any practices in assessing safety or risk to children. “When parents are complying with the safety plan, we do close cases,” she said. “Cuts to child protection have not affected open cases.”
Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.
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