A Michigan teacher becomes part of a team of people that helps a traumatized boy. Along the way she must rely on her training and strength.
Rochelle Riley, Detroit Free Press 9:00 a.m. EST Dec. 13, 2019
Children in Crisis series: Former Free Press Columnist Rochelle Riley studied how trauma and toxic environments impact how children learn. She unravels this issue through the eyes of three children and their caregivers in Detroit, Romulus and Flint. And she offers some solutions to ensure that children are mentally prepared to learn.
Young students who have suffered trauma or adverse experiences typically get either no help, little help, or, if they’re lucky, help from special angels.
In the case of Michael, whose learning was impeded by trauma, his angel was Amanda Beck.
She was his social worker, his guardian’s confidante and his teacher’s support.
It was not an easy job.
The first time she met Michael, she had to take the next day off from work.
“I could not move forward,” said Beck, 29. “I took a mental health day and returned the next day, so I didn’t have to take his trauma into the next session with another family.
“For the first couple of meetings, it feels really overwhelming,” she said. “It almost feels like digesting. Then you say, ‘All right. Now we can work.’ “
Beck has been a counselor for four years and worked with Michael for a year and a half. She is among thousands of Michigan social workers, counselors, teachers and clinicians helping children who have suffered adverse childhood experiences or ACEs. In some instances, the circumstances and damage have been severe. And Michigan’s colleges, like others around the country, are just catching up to the level of trauma the angels are facing on the front lines.
Beck’s job is in the spotlight at a time when school districts across the state and around the country are seeing shortages in the number of teachers necessary to provide effective learning and in the number of social workers to help remove barriers to learning. But even as the caregivers struggle, two things have become evident:
- Children, bombarded by increasing emotional and physical abuse, abandonment, exposure to violence either directly or indirectly need more help than ever.
- Teachers and social workers dealing with a relentless litany of the mistreatments and horrors children bring to them, must be trained to handle the secondary trauma that affects them.
“We’re not just dealing with trauma for students,” said Michelle Davis, dean of climate, culture and community at Davis Aerospace High School in Detroit. “Teachers are experiencing trauma on a regular basis. When you are in an environment where you are listening to very traumatic stories, stories that are having an adverse effect on children you love and when you are the caretaker of someone who is suffering, that transposes onto you.”
She learned at Starfish
That Beck is able to juggle the workload and the pain is a testament to where she was trained.
She works for the Inkster-based Starfish Family Services, a tiny agency in a small town that is making a big impact across Wayne County.
Starfish had been around for decades operating an early childhood education program and a separate children’s mental health program.
“We worked in those separate lanes,” said Ann Kalass, who has been CEO at Starfish for 12 years since leaving the Ford Motor Company after 14 years.
But “we learned that children don’t live in systems,” she said. “They don’t live in early childhood. They don’t live in mental health. They don’t live in juvenile justice. They just live. And they cross through these systems.
Kalass said that, as Starfish began understanding the prevalence of trauma suffered by their young clients, they decided to change the entire focus of their center.
“We recognized how that trauma also existed in the families we were serving in our early childhood programs, and we really saw trauma as an issue,” she said.
Starfish, she said, created a bridge between services so they could help children and families with all their needs at once — and in one place.
Starfish, which works with hundreds of families and children a year, consolidated the services they once offered in four different places all in one space for children up to age 6, creating a neighborhood of services to make it easier for families to get help.
Thanks to that Partnering with Parents Center in Dearborn, families used to going to one location after another all over the county now get all the services at one time.
“We had a lot of focus groups with families and a lot of what we were hearing was that they were tired of having to go four, five sometimes six, locations to get the services they needed for their children,” Gillian Ogilvie, who manages the center, said in an interview.
“We had kids who had such diverse needs, and they had providers all over the county, in multiple buildings,” she said “And our families were saying how challenging that was, traveling and building relationships with different centers.
At that time, more than 70% of the children seen by Community Mental Health officials in Wayne County had experienced at least three traumatic events that could affect how they think and learn. Most of those children were from Detroit. All of them needed more than what is typically and currently offered by public school districts.
And that hasn’t changed. And it won’t change without people understanding that children must be prepared to learn and then must be taught, something that families, elected officials and others in positions to help, must understand.
Kalass said her journey from a career in autos to a career in healing happened because of how she realized she was living.
“I come from what I call a privileged place,” she said. “It’s my life experience of coming from a stable family of teachers who believed in the worth of all people that allows me to see in our work the disparity in neighborhoods and families.
“I’ve seen what’s possible. I’ve seen great public education. I’ve seen strong neighborhoods where everyone goes to the same schools … where people feel safe,” she said. “To come to Inkster and see what wasn’t available for children and families. … I just really feeling disgusted with myself for not understanding how big that gap was. It fuels my passion for creating stronger education opportunities for kids and helping them get to their full potential.”
As important as helping the children, she and other staff members at Starfish said, was the need to teach counselors and social workers how to provide self-care, so they would not fall down an abyss of sadness dealing with children in distress.
Kids aren’t the only ones who suffer trauma
Starfish equipped Beck to handle cases like Michael’s. But Beck said each new beginning is difficult.
“The hardest part is meeting the family and feeling overwhelmed by everything that family holds.,” she said. “I get a really clear and thorough picture of what somebody’s life is like, because even though you’re there and listening, no one hides what they do. … I think you just get a very authentic view of what life is like for your patient.”
“I know next week I have two intakes, so that’s going to be a little bit more emotionally draining of a week,” she said. “I’ve got two new stories, two new families, two new people to get to know and have to figure out. And that’s hard! “
Beck said that each case is different, but her time with 75% of her clients usually ranges from six to nine months. And what some people don’t realize about social workers and clinicians is how much they care.
She recalled a recent goodbye to a 12-year-old she’d been working with for months.
“She’s transferring to outpatient,” Beck said. So, she’ll still have a therapist through Starfish. But I won’t get to work with her anymore, and so, for me, that feels like a sadness and a loss.”
Beck also has developed ways to keep her own stress to a minimum.
“I pay attention to the times of the day of when I meet new people or new clients,” she said. “It’s really helpful that they’re not the last person that I see in the day. But for other people, it’s the exact opposite. They like for it to be the last person that they see, and then they go home.
She also never listens to the radio right after meeting a client.
“That’s the time that I do a lot of processing.,” she said.
She also uses breakthroughs with one family on another family.
“There’s just different pieces where I can draw some parallels and feel more comfort in saying out loud that these aren’t impossible problems,” she said.
Beck also finds comfort in her family, her husband of three years and the 7-year-old daughter they adopted last August. Her husband also is a social worker, a man she met in college when she was a theater major, working as director or stage manager of productions that included “Into the Woods” and “The Outsiders.”
Her husband, she said, is one more person who understands exactly what she’s going through after difficult workdays.
“It’s really nice to have someone to understand what this feels like without having to over-explain something that’s happened,” she said. “Like last night, he said, ‘How was your day?’ And that answer to how was my day is very complicated. …”
Beck said that routine also helps.
“I make coffee for myself every morning,” she said. “And I’ve been lighting candles maybe for about a year now. … It grounds me to sit down and not move forward too soon.”
The joy of a breakthrough
Her work with Michael, which lasted more than 18 months, was like riding a roller-coaster.
“Our relationship has always been such a cycle,” Beck said. “He deals with a lot of avoidance and a lot of barriers, and he uses a lot of language to put those things up.
“He is someone who really cares a lot about what people think of him and social perception,” she said. “So, where some other kids would be really excited like, ‘Oh, my person is here!’ — he is someone who wants things to be private. He doesn’t want people to think he needs help. … So, when I say it’s been really a long road. …”
But she also remembered their first breakthrough moment, that instant when Michael began to trust her after she had spent a year as his home-based therapist.
It was after he moved in with a guardian and began living in a stable home. A few months after that, when Beck stopped by Wick Elementary for their regular session, she started their session the way she always did: “Is there anything I can help you with today?”
And he said: “ ‘My anger. I think I need some help with that. So, you could do that.’ ”
Beck agreed with Michael’s teacher that, had he not been a victim of severe neglect and physical abuse, there is no telling how much farther along he’d be in his studies.
He is “a very smart person, and it’s hard to know what that would otherwise look like,” she said. “I know that because of his trauma, especially at a younger age, his behaviors looked like diagnoses that he doesn’t have, that he clearly doesn’t have. And so, I know that he wouldn’t have been identified in kindergarten and first grade as someone who needed an IEP (individual education plan) for these behavioral concerns. These behavioral concerns are pretty clearly the impact of trauma and his experience with that in terms of his cognitive functioning.”
What could be more heartbreaking than watching a child want to do more, be more?
And Michael always knew what he wanted. Thanks to counseling and a loving teacher and counselor, he was finally able to say it.
“ ‘I want to live with (my guardian) forever, and I hope she never dies,’ ” Beck says he told her. “He was really relieved when that home became his home. He said, ‘She’s my favorite person next to God. God’s my favorite person and she’s my No. 2.’ ”
** The Free Press and Starfish chose not to provide Michael’s real name to protect his privacy and his future.