Up to 1,500 traumatized children in Queens will benefit from therapy under a four-year grant administered by a St. John’s University professor.
The program was designed by Elissa Brown, associate professor of psychology on the Jamaica Estates campus. It is based on a project she implentented there in 2001 called PARTNERS (Prevention of Adverse Reactions to Negative Events and Related Stress). Eighteen undergraduate and graduate students work with her there.
The $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will train staff in pediatric and psychiatric departments at Flushing and Jamaica hospitals as well as their satelllite clinics, and Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn.
It will screen, evaluate and treat traumatized children and teach their families to deal with their children’s problems. “We will be principally serving the immigrant community,” Brown said.
“Children in Queens are very underserved and the immigrant community even more so, mainly due to cultural differences,” she added.
The professor noted that her program will service people from 100 countries who speak 138 languages. “These people have fewer resources and are less likely to seek help due to their cultural backgrounds.”
Eventually, Brown hopes that the program will train cultural centers, schools and other institutions to identify problems so that children like Nixzmary Brown, who was allegedly abused and killed by her mother and stepfather in Brooklyn earlier this month, don’t fall through the cracks.
Children in the program will have suffered trauma due to abuse, natural disasters or accidents. “There are warning signs and children show a variety of symptoms, but they could include a shift in emotions, gaining weight, becoming withdrawn or acting out,” Brown said.
She noted that in children, depression can show itself as irritability, not sadness. “Their developmental differences are not the same as adults.”
Children in the program will first be given cognitive behavior therapy, that teaches them coping skills for anger, agitation and sadness. Then, they will go on to problem-solving skills and will be educated that the abuse they may be suffering is not normal.
Participants will then be taught how to talk about what has happened to them. “Most don’t want to talk about the trauma, such as being in a car accident or 9-11,” Brown said.
Lastly, the caregivers are brought in. They will talk about the trauma, be taught coping skills and parenting techniques. “Then the parents are asked to write a letter to their children and apologize for what happened and promise to keep them safe. It’s amazing to see a child’s face when the parents read the letter to them.”
The professor added that some children are difficult to raise, but it is her job to make it less painful for all involved.
One of Brown’s toughest jobs wil be to get families involved in the program. “It is hard to get them in the door,” she said. “We will use engagement strategies to make it relevant to families and will talk in their own language.”
Brown has done research in the field for 10 years and brought the progam with her from New York University School of Medicine. A native New Yorker, she is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and earned her Ph.D. at SUNY Albany. She did a fellowship at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh before going to NYU in 1998.
She is hoping that the project will gain momentum through word of mouth from participants. “That’s the best way for a program to become successful. Recommendations from your own world are always the best.”