Brie Zeltner, Bridge Michigan | Published online May 14, 2020
In the Sterling Heights condominium complex where Mary Johnson lives with her 9-year-old son and husband, kids began playing together outdoors as soon as the weather improved.
The sounds of shouting and giggling drift in through Johnson’s windows, a siren call to play that is nearly impossible for a child to ignore, especially when the coronavirus pandemic has severed ties to school, classmates and friends.
But Johnson’s son Nathan, a third-grader and only child, hasn’t been able to join in.
“Most of the kids outside playing are siblings,” Johnson told Bridge Magazine. Nathan “hasn’t been able to play with anyone since this started.”
Only children are just one group of kids who are more vulnerable to the isolation and stress caused by the pandemic, experts told Bridge. Kids with pre-existing anxiety or depression, kids with developmental and learning disabilities, and those living in chaotic or unstable homes also may not be faring as well.
“When you’re already emotionally fragile, or experiencing developmental or behavioral issues, a crisis only exacerbates those challenges,” said Marisa Nicely, vice president of clinical and youth services at Starfish Family Services in Detroit, which offers families early childhood education, behavioral health and parenting support. That is true for kids and parents, she said.
For parents as well as children, the loss of a school routine, interaction with peers and the outside support of relatives, teachers, social workers, school psychologists and therapists can compound an already stressful time.
There’s little research on the potential consequences to children of social distancing and isolation during a lengthy pandemic. It’s an unprecedented situation, though experts say research is underway.
But studies of children during natural disasters show they tend to be more vulnerable than adults to trauma and the disruption of routine these events cause, and can suffer long-lasting anxiety and post-traumatic stress effects as a result.
Angela Gallihugh’s 7-year-old son, Elijah, who has Down syndrome, has received near-daily school-based occupational, speech and physical therapy for most of his life. For the past nine weeks, he’s barely had any.
“I fear he’s falling behind and he’s not going to be ready for third grade,” said Gallihugh, 32, of Warren, who works overnight shifts pricing items at Kroger and does her best to help Elijah with schoolwork during the day.
“He was having some behavioral issues before the pandemic. What’s going to happen when it’s over and he goes back to school?”
As a teacher herself, Johnson, 31, the Sterling Heights mom, isn’t so worried about her son’s academic progress, though his attention deficit disorder has been making attending to school work and online Zoom meetings with his class more difficult. She’s more concerned about Nathan’s emotional health, she said.
“I can’t imagine my son not playing [with other children] until this ends,” she said of the COVID-19 outbreak. “It could be a year — who knows?”
Worry is justified
Parents are justifiably worried their children may be suffering emotionally, developmentally or academically during the pandemic, said Dr. Steven Krug, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Anne & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
“I think the concern is quite rational or reasonable,” he said. “I don’t think that anybody really knows about the magnitude of the impact of the pandemic, and the impact likely varies tremendously from one child to the next.”
While schools are using technology such as video conferencing and tablets to maintain connections among students, teachers and classmates, there’s only so much technology can do to help children maintain connections, said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and researcher at Michigan Medicine’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
“Social interaction is the primary way that kids learn,” Radesky told Bridge. “Interaction that’s mediated through a screen, that’s part of a video chat, is not the same thing. For right now, it’s the best we have.”
For young children, a lot of learning happens through play, Radesky said. “So much of the way that kids play, with adults or with kids, is by sharing and exchanging objects, whether it’s cards or cars. You can’t get a playful exchange of objects” by video.
Parents who tried to limit “screen time” pre-coronavirus are now finding that it’s impossible to do so when schooling and nearly all social interactions happen on phones, iPads and computer screens.
And video learning can be particularly challenging for children who already had difficulty with attention or who are easily overwhelmed, doctors told Bridge.
Gallihugh’s son Elijah has two Zoom meetings a week with his mainstream and special education classmates, but these can lead to overstimulation and “meltdowns” for him, she said.
“He decided he didn’t want to be on there anymore and just slammed our laptop shut and ran away,” she said. “He ended up throwing himself on the floor and having a fit because he was too overstimulated, too excited and emotional.”
Some children may risk falling behind, or not getting the care or attention they need because they don’t have equal access to the technology it takes to stay connected, said Nicely of Starfish Family Services.
“Access to technology can be a huge barrier to implementing telehealth or online school,” she said, especially among those living at or below the poverty level. Starfish has been buying Wi-Fi enabled tablets to distribute to their clients to make this easier, Nicely said.
Widening the circle
As Michigan finishes its ninth week of social distancing and schooling from home, and the state makes some tentative moves towards an economic reopening, some parents are considering widening their social circles to give their kids a chance to really play.
On Mother’s Day, May 10, Johnson took Nathan to visit his grandmother, who lives alone and took care of Nathan daily before he entered school. “They’re really close — she’s like a second mother to him,” she said.
After that visit, it was decided it was best for Nathan to see his grandmother more regularly.
“It was too much mentally on my mom and on him for them to be apart,” Johnson said.
Ideally, Johnson would like to find another family who would be willing to let their kids play with Nathan over the summer. She knows it’s a risk, but feels it would be worth it for her son’s mental health.
“There’s only so long you can keep kids apart,” she said.
It’s not surprising that families are thinking along these lines as the reality of a summer without sports and camps sinks in, experts told Bridge. Still, there’s a lot of personal and community-level risk to be considered, they said.
“This is what feels so impossible,” said Radesky. “What we know would improve our own mental health as families, through more social connection and being able to go back to normal… is going to contribute to more virus spread.”
Dr. Carolyn Landis, a pediatric psychologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, said that whether to include others in your family’s quarantine bubble is a tough decision that each family has to make on its own.
“We do need to err on the side of caution,” she said. “Each family has to weigh the risk and think: ‘Is it worth it?’”
Still, there are ways for kids to get more social interaction safely, she said. If they’re willing to keep physical distance, they can share outdoor events such as barbecues and bonfires with other families.
Krug, of Lurie Children’s Hospital, echoed that idea, noting that he’s seen children in his neighborhood talking and playing from opposite sides of a driveway or sidewalk.
“It’s not a completely normal interaction, but it’s a way to reduce the impact of isolation on both adults and children,” he said.
What to do
Parents worried about their child’s emotional wellbeing during the pandemic should make an appointment to speak with a pediatrician or counselor about their concerns, Krug said.
“While it may not be the traditional medical concern like a fever, I think parents should have a low threshold to seek help right now, because these are extraordinary times,” he said.
Most pediatricians, therapists, counselors and social workers are offering telephone or video visits.
Starfish Family Services has been able to connect with about 80 percent of its clients in this way, Nicely said. The organization has shifted its focus to crisis management for most of the families it serves, she said, and are trying to help families get through each day.
Nicely said she is particularly worried about the families they’ve been unable to reach.
“These are families that have the least resources and are under the most stress. They don’t have the access to the technology and they don’t have phones with unlimited data so that we can be constantly reaching out to them.”
Despite the very real concerns of the pandemic, experts say most kids will likely bounce back from the challenges they’re facing right now, especially if they have warm, supportive adults around them.
“Kids are resilient, and as long as parents are attentive to their kids and to their own feelings… in the end things will then get back to normal,” said Krug. “Of course, the new normal may be very different.”
Karen Bouffard, The Detroit News | Published 7:29 p.m. ET Jan. 1, 2020
Starfish Family Services, a Wayne County-based behavioral health nonprofit, makes 300,000 meals annually for children in their programs, preparing breakfast, lunch and a snack for 719 kids for most weeks of the year.
It’s a Herculean task for head chef Shaune Fairley and his two assistants, who cook the meals every morning at headquarters in Inkster for transport to centers around Southeast Michigan. They do so 41 weeks of the year.
If that’s not challenging enough, they work from 60 different menus to accommodate children’s food allergies, and religious or cultural food restrictions.
There were 156 kids with food allergies last year, some so severe that their food must be transported separately.
“We have 86 (different food) allergies, diabetics, gluten-free, religious beliefs, lactose, citrus, every kid has a different allergy,” said Fairley, noting that each specially prepared meal is delivered in its own separate package.
The food is critically important for some of the region’s tiniest residents, said Cynthia Bonk-Foley, food services manager at Starfish.
The homemade meals are prepared with fresh ingredients for infants, toddlers and preschoolers at 18 Starfish centers across Inkster, Detroit, Plymouth, Livonia and Dearborn Heights.
“We do it because we do believe food powers the mind. You can’t learn anything unless you’re fed and happy,” Bonk-Foley said, adding that conversations at mealtime are a big part of the learning experience.
“This gives our children the opportunity to really sit down with their teacher and talk about the food, the color, the shape,” she said. “It’s a language enriched experience.
“A lot of our kids don’t know what a cucumber tastes like or looks like. Some children have never seen broccoli. Children, after two or three times of trying something new, will really latch on to it. They see their friends eating something, and they say I want to try that too.”
For Chef Fairley and his assistants, the day starts at 5 a.m. Monday through Friday. They have it down to a science.
“We come in, take care of our food allergies, by the time we hit the floor we’re working,” he said. “We plan our meals, sort it out and deliver it to all of our sites.
“I have one person who works on allergies and religious (food requirements), one that packs, and I do all the cooking. Then we all come together to clean and sanitize the kitchen.”
The crew prepares a full breakfast, a full lunch and a snack for each child.
“We have waffles, pancakes, McMuffins, we have fruit every morning and milk,” he said of the breakfasts. “We have cereals — all of ’em are low sugar.”
Lunches include mac ‘n cheese, chicken a la king, burgers and veggie burgers, tacos, chicken and other kid favorites.
“We have peas and carrots, all the healthy steamed vegetables, cucumbers in the salads,” he added. “For snacks, we have Goldfish crackers, cheese sticks, hummus — and they love yogurt, they love the Teddy Grahams, and they love the Goldfish.”
The babies and tots are enrolled in federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start programs, or the state-funded Great Start Reading Readiness program for 4-year-olds, Bonk-Foley said.
It cost an average of $6.43 to feed each child per day, and federal and state funding don’t cover the full cost. So the nonprofit’s staffers have learned to make dollars stretch and rely on charitable contributions from the community. More than 2,000 volunteers help with their programs across the region.
“We’re so grateful, but we totally rely on private philanthropy,” Bonk-Foley said.
“We want to be able to not just feed our children — children are also hungry to learn. They want to know what a pineapple tastes like.”
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.