WMU News

New center to assess abused and neglected children

Feb. 3, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Everyone agrees that children who have been abused or neglected need extra help.

But helping them is not as easy as it sounds. Children who have endured traumatic events often vary widely in their needs.

With that in mind, a new center opening in early February in the WMU Unified Clinics office seeks to shed some light on how to help area children victimized by abuse and neglect by getting to know them better, one child at a time.

The Southwestern Michigan Children's Trauma Assessment Center will take some of the guesswork out of deciding how to best meet the needs of individual children. Housed on the third floor of the University Medical and Health Sciences Building at 1000 Oakland Drive, the new center will provide detailed assessments of abused, neglected and traumatized children and make recommendations for additional treatment and services.

"The research indicates that 50 to 80 percent of children who have experienced child abuse and neglect have significant emotional, intellectual and behavioral delays," says Dr. James Henry, the new center's director and a WMU assistant professor of social work. "We know that and yet we don't have very good mechanisms in place to assess what these children need, especially after they enter foster care."

The center will fill that void by working with area health and human service agencies that will refer children to the center to assess their cognitive/academic, physical, speech/language, social/familial, emotional and behavioral needs. Led by the School of Social Work, the center has received community support from Lakeside Boys and Girls Residence, Child Guidance Clinic, Family and Children Services, Kalamazoo Community Mental Health, Bronson Methodist Hospital and Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies. Referrals will come from area agencies.

Childhood trauma can result in such symptoms as hypervigilance, withdrawal, sleeping difficulties, depression and significant mood swings. But often problems may not surface immediately. Early detection of child trauma can minimize psychological and physiological risk.

The new center will provide another tool to detect those problems earlier. An interdisciplinary team of professionals and students from the school of social work and the departments of occupational therapy, speech pathology and audiology and psychology will work together with referring agencies and family members to evaluate assessment results and recommend treatment. Doctors and residents form the Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies will perform medical exams and neurological testing. In addition to helping children, the center will serve as a multi-disciplinary "learning laboratory" for students.

Upon completing the assessment, the referring agency will receive a report containing recommended interventions based on the child's needs. It will be up to the referring agency to implement recommendations. Center staff will provide follow-up consultation after four months to determine if children were able to receive the recommended treatment or if modifications were needed. Henry says providing follow-up consultation is important not only for the child, but also to identify service gaps that require community responses.

Despite the importance of comprehensive developmental assessments for children who have suffered abuse, neglect or other trauma, such assessments are rarely done, says Henry, a 17-year veteran with Child Protective Services. Typically, those who are referred only receive psychological evaluations.

A recent survey of area human service professionals in Southwest Michigan shows a big demand for more in-depth evaluations. Of the 222 who responded, 87 percent said there is a strong or significant need for a development assessment center and that more than 1,000 referrals could be generated in one year.

"The need is overwhelming for this project," Henry says.

For now, the center will be open Monday and Friday afternoons and serve between 100 and 200 children annually. Henry hopes the center will be self-supporting and cover its expenses through fees collected from agencies for providing assessments.

Grants totaling $20,000 from the Kalamazoo and Fetzer foundations were instrumental in getting the center up and running. Henry says center organizers are seeking additional grant money to expand center operations.

The movement to expand services to traumatized children has picked up steam recently on the national level, Henry says.

"It's really a developing system of care for children," Henry says. " A few projects have begun to demonstrate the critical needs of children, especially when coming into foster care, for this kind of service.

"So we're really hoping to make it into a national model that can address the significant needs of kids who have been exposed to trauma and more specifically abuse and neglect."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu


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