Ending childhood neglect and abuse is possible, and it happens now at Childhaven.
Watching a circle of 4- to 5-year-old children sitting with their teacher talking about whatever pops into their heads could make any adult smile. Kids say the darndest things, don’t they?
Sometimes, though, what they say can be painful to hear, as when a girl mentions her father’s drinking or a boy asks if it’s OK for parents to hit their children. You never know where the conversation might go when the children are sitting in a circle at Childhaven, a nonprofit that provides therapeutic care to children who’ve been neglected or abused. But there’s still reason to smile because staff members know how to guide the conversations in ways that help heal childhood wounds. That dynamic is far too rare.
It can be difficult for children whose lives are affected by divorce, parental substance abuse, mental illness in the home, housing instability and other negative factors to conform to expectations when they arrive at school, and schools often respond by throwing them out.
Read the story by Seattle Times education reporter Claudia Rowe about schools where teachers are beginning to get to the roots of behavior problems and help their students overcome them. That is still not routine in K-12 education, where discipline is the usual response.
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That makes intervention before kindergarten urgent so that children can arrive at kindergarten with a better chance of fitting in. The research that explains and helps change behaviors resulting from adverse experiences has been around at least since the 1990s and has been expanding year after year. Childhaven puts it to use, and that’s why reading the story about K-12 made me want to tell you what Childhaven does. It’s not just child care, but therapeutic child care and includes broad interaction with families to help them achieve stability and growth.
Its model works, and Childhaven President Maria Chavez Wilcox, told me that’s why she’s in Seattle. Chavez Wilcox learned about Childhaven when she worked for United Way of King County in the 1980s. She left Seattle and held a number of nonprofit leadership positions. She was CEO of United Way of Orange County in California when she decided she wanted to get closer to the work nonprofits do by running one whose mission energized her.
“I moved here because this is the only agency that has the best shot at ending child abuse,” she said. “Childhaven is the largest agency in the country that addresses this (child abuse and neglect), and the only one that is as therapeutically focused.” Mental-health care is at the core of its work. “People don’t know we’re doing brain-altering work,” Chavez Wilcox said.
She wants to expand the nonprofit’s reach. “We’re taking care of three to four hundred kids, and there’s over 3,000 in King County and over 20,000 in the state of Washington that are being hurt and neglected right now … from not being given any food, to being locked in closets to being hurt,” Chavez Wilcox said.
“I’m a child-abuse survivor, so I know what it’s like not to have (the support Childhaven provides),” she added.
“One of the things my mother always said to me,” she said, was: “ ‘I didn’t have any help and I didn’t know who to talk to.’ I don’t want one single person to say that to me in Seattle.”
The children at Childhaven’s three locations are between 2 months and 5 years old and are referred to the nonprofit agency by the state or a court because they’ve been subject to neglect or abuse.
Childhaven’s successful model begins with a highly trained staff. Teachers there need at least a B.A. degree in psychology, social work, education or a related field. Therapists need an M.A. Class sizes are limited.
Children learn emotional and social skills such as how to put their feelings into words and to control and direct those feelings. “We teach them, you can be angry, but you can’t hurt anyone,” Bethany Larsen told me.
Larsen is vice president for branch program operations and has a degree in elementary education. But that didn’t prepare her to understand and help children whose lives are full of chaos. That came as Childhaven absorbed and applied the lessons of recent brain science. She showed me around the Seattle branch this week and told me about the program.
Children learn how to interact with teachers and how to trust. They get the consistency and routine that a chaotic home may lack. There’s a nurse on staff at each branch, and the children are fed nutritious meals. Each child has an individual treatment plan based on his or her diagnosis and kept on track by regular progress reports.
The parents are helped, too, because often they haven’t had the kind of upbringing that would prepare them to provide what their children need. There’s parent-child therapy, visits to the home and crisis intervention.
Childhaven even picks up the children each day and returns them home, and that’s about more than transportation. Teachers ride along, which is comforting for the children, and the teachers get a chance to see the home and the parents each day, giving them a better idea of the circumstances that affect the child on a daily basis.
Some parents start out angry that they’ve been sent to participate, Larsen said, but they see that the staff treats them with respect, and they come around. There’s a parent-advisory committee, so parents have a voice; after all, the program is about inclusion, not exclusion.
That inclusion goes double for children. “We don’t kick kids out,” Larsen said. A child may bite, hit or throw a chair, she said, but the staff lets them know, “We’re going to be there no matter what.”
Every child should have that kind of commitment and stability.