Defining trauma

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Education

Defining trauma

by Joni Moths Mueller

Has your child experienced trauma? That was a key question Behavior Clinic staff and graduate students asked when they sat down in the home of a family seeking help addressing a child’s serious behavior issue.

Five years ago it was rare for a family to answer yes, remembers Dr. Robert Fox, consulting psychologist at the Behavior Clinic, a partnership between Marquette and Penfield Children’s Center in Milwaukee. But after one of Fox’s doctoral students found a trauma screening inventory, a list of explicit questions to ask when interviewing families, that changed — radically.

Has your child ever undergone any serious medical procedures or had a life-threatening illness? Has your child ever been separated from you or another person your child depends on for love and security for more than a few days? Has your child ever seen or experienced domestic violence or abuse? The inventory surfaced a startling reality. It turned out 75–80 percent of the children the Behavior Clinic worked with had experienced trauma.

Knowing this helped the Behavior Clinic staff and students enhance practices. They learned to spot and address symptoms caused by trauma, such as regression, inconsolable crying, staring spells, incontinence and nightmares. They expanded the already excellent Early Pathways program to include a trauma component. “We get in there with real practical strategies and see significant symptom improvement,” says Fox, a professor of counselor education and counseling psychology in the College of Education. “If you don’t address it early, it doesn’t go away. You can’t just wait and hope they will grow out of it.”

The Behavior Clinic’s track record for evidence-based practices was recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which called it a “nationally replicable model” and awarded a five-year grant for $1,930,732 to provide trauma-focused treatment for children from birth to age 6 in Milwaukee County.

The grant makes so much possible, says Fox. The clinic will expand outreach to Milwaukee families by continuing to work with community-based agencies. The clinic also will train community providers, giving them the tools to intervene and support children in need of mental health services. Over the life of the grant, Fox says, the clinic will train 400–500 professionals and serve 1,500 more children.

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