Defusing Childhood Trauma

by Jeff Worley
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Last year an estimated 3 million children in the United States were reported as victims of child maltreatment, and the number of reports nationwide has increased 41 percent since 1988.

The human misery behind these statistics can’t be quantified, but research has shown that the effects of maltreatment and trauma on the developing brain of a young child are devastating and continue to impact children throughout the remainder of their lives. Research has linked early-life trauma to several leading causes of death and high-risk behaviors in adults, including substance abuse, obesity, promiscuity, chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, cancer), depression, and suicide.

Through a project in the Center for the Study of Violence Against Children (CSVAC), a team of researchers and clinicians at the University of Kentucky is working to help children and adolescents who have suffered trauma. The center was established here last year in the College of Social Work.

“What types of trauma are we talking about?” says Ginny Sprang, who is heading up this child and adolescent trauma treatment project. “These are kids who have been sexually abused, horribly physically abused, or who have been caught up in domestic violence. Maybe they’ve been victims of school bullying or witnessed a school shooting. And some of the children we’ve seen have experienced several of these things, over a number of years.”

The children in this program are either identified through another College of Social Work project, called Comprehensive Assessment and Training Services (CATS), which provides a wide-raging assessment of the child and family strengths and vulnerabilities, or children are referred from child-protective services around the state.

After an initial assessment, children and teens in this trauma treatment project are taught how to develop trauma narratives—individual story lines that can lead them to better manage their emotions. “This approach helps kids take what has happened to them and become desensitized to it so they can think about it in a rational way,” Sprang explains.

A staff of five clinicians works with 25 to 30 children and adolescents a week in this project. These clinicians also train others in the region and state to use the best-proven research approaches to treating childhood trauma. The results of all of this work are funneled into a national database operated through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a prestigious group of centers of excellence across the nation.

“When this project Ginny is running was funded by SAMHSA [the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration], we were accepted for inclusion in this national network,” says Kay Hoffman, dean of the UK College of Social Work. “This was a huge honor. And a database like this allows us to look at our work here in both a local and national perspective and see how the kids in this project are doing compared to other children and teens around the country.”

The CSVAC was one of only 10 sites selected for inclusion in this national network in 2007.

photo of children