Program helps heal effects of trauma in kids

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Trauma and toxic stress have serious consequences for kids, including delayed brain development and a host of mental, physical and behavioral health problems.

But a treatment program developed by Easter Seals of Michigan and Western Michigan University has reversed the problems in some Metro Detroit children, and it will soon be expanded to other regions of the state.

Called LUNA — for Look, Uncover, Nurture and Act — the program provides children with comprehensive assessments to identify how trauma affects their neurological, psychological and physical development. A team including a psychologist, speech and language therapist and occupational therapist make the assessments.

The children receive an individualized treatment plan and are connected with the services they need.

Easter Seals of Michigan has received a $2.1 million grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to expand the program — already underway at Easter Seals in Waterford — to additional sites in Oakland, Wayne, Macomb and Genesee counties, Grand Rapids and the Upper Peninsula. The funding has also been used to develop an online assessment tool for professionals, parents and others.

“Traumatic experiences of children at the early ages affect the physical and mental health of children for years to come,” said Paul Hillegonds, president and CEO of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. “Early treatment as a preventive measure leads to better quality of life and reduces the need for treatment that can last for years.”

The nonprofit endowment fund is financed with $1.56 billion over 18 years from Blue Cross Blue of Michigan to help some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, especially children and seniors. It is part of a 2013 state law that allowed the company to become a nonprofit mutual health insurer.

Tangible results

Gail Bramlett said she has seen improvements in her 8-year-old grandson since he began coming to Easter Seals in Waterford two years ago after she took custody of the boy. Bramlett believes he may have been neglected and exposed to domestic violence while living with his mother, who Bramlett said was drug-addicted, and his mother’s boyfriend.

“He had so many problems and issues in first grade, it was obvious he needed help,” said Bramlett, who asked The Detroit News to withhold the boy’s name to protect his privacy. “His whole life was a challenge.”

An assessment revealed Bramlett’s grandson was delayed in speech and language, had severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was overly sensitive to touch. He also was diagnosed as having problems with proprioception — the sense of how one’s body is positioned.

He initially got in-home therapy for up to 15 hours per week. He now has regular appointments with a speech therapist, occupational therapist and clinical social worker. He also sees a psychiatrist for medication.

As part of his treatment plan, Bramlett’s grandson receives special therapies such as weighted blankets and special vests that provide comfort and help him feel grounded. Easter Seals also paid for him to join a soccer team.

Bramlett said she’s seen slow but steady progress in her grandson’s communication skills and behavior. She can also tell that he feels better about himself.

“He can actually speak ... a complete thought, using the correct words for the correct things,” she said. “He’s expanding his word understanding.

“In the beginning he had low self-esteem. I don’t think he knew what low self-esteem meant, he just knew he didn’t feel good about himself. (Now) he’s actually able to sit down at school. He feels OK.”

Therapists at Easter Seals help with the process of getting her grandson signed up for special education services at his elementary school.

“Part of the treatment is helping the child and the family and the school — anyone who is involved with that child — understand that the behavior they’re seeing, that it’s not just that they’re a bad kid, it’s all stemming from that trauma or that stress,” said Uriel Stephens, director of family services for Easter Seals Michigan.

Quest for resiliency

The program was created with help from Western Michigan University Social Work Professor Jim Henry, director of the Southwest Michigan Trauma Assessment Center in Kalamazoo. According to Henry, children who are neglected or abused suffer delayed brain development, but it’s reversible if treated in time.

A major goal of treatment, Henry said, is to help children become resilient so they can deal with challenges. Asked how resiliency is built, Henry said children need to know they are loved and cared for by at least one adult; they must build competency and experience success; and they must learn to control their emotions.

“Kids (who have been traumatized) don’t learn to regulate their emotions, and so they often are explosive. ... They can’t regulate they’re emotions, so they’re really up or they’re really down,” Henry said. “They have a low tolerance for frustration and lack of flexibility.

“By controlling their emotions, they’re much more likely to be successful at school and at relationships. By building those three things ... when they have stressers in their lives, they have resources to get through them without disengaging or becoming explosive. Without those, it can be very difficult to be on target for your age.”

Bramlett said her grandson, a sweet boy who loves to be hugged, is beginning to heal. Every morning, the two say affirmations together, such as “I can manage my behavior and control my impulses,” or “I am a good, nice and honest boy.”

“This program takes the kids who are way in trouble and brings them up to an average level,” she said.

“I remind him every day that he’s a good kid. He deserves to have a good life.”