Topic: Child Abuse Experts

Q&A with Susan Payne, Founder of Safe2Tell

The Kempe Foundation 2020 Luncheon: Championing Healthy Childhoods will celebrate the professionals working every day to ensure children have the opportunity to develop and grow in safe, healthy and nurturing environments, and to inspire community action to keep children safe and healthy for generations to come.

One of those professionals is Susan Payne, a 28-year law enforcement veteran, retired special agent and Founder of the Safe2Tell prevention initiative, developed as a response to the Columbine tragedy. She is also Safe2Tell’s former Executive Director and Special Agent in Charge of Safe Communities and Safe Schools for the Colorado Attorney General and Department of Public Safety.

Susan, who was recently appointed to the National School Safety Task Force and is an Expert Adviser to the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, has worked extensively with the Secret Service on Protecting America’s Schools and participated in the Bystander study of 2004, the 2018 Secret Service Guide for Preventing School Violence, and the 2019 U.S. Secret Service Analysis and Comprehensive Study. Susan has been asked to speak at the White House on several occasions but most recently after the tragedy in Parkland. She also works with the Department of Homeland Security’s National Clearinghouse for School Safety.

We look forward to welcoming Susan as our 2020 Luncheon keynote speaker. In advance of the event, she is offering some insights into her work, experience and how Safe2Tell and other organizations, such as Kempe, are working together to provide our kids with safe schools.

What prompted you to start Safe2Tell, and how has it helped since its introduction in Colorado schools?

Susan: Safe2Tell was created out of necessity. After the horrifying shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 people dead, many more wounded and countless others’ lives changed forever, Colorado’s Attorney General Ken Salazar and Governor Bill Owens convened a statewide study to develop a plan for preventing a shooting of this magnitude in the future. As a direct result, the Safe2Tell Initiative was created: To provide an anonymous venue for parents, students, teachers, school administrators, and law enforcement to share information.

Safe2Tell is the first framework for prevention and early intervention. The program helps identify and create a multi-disciplinary team in every school in Colorado. This unique, yet sophisticated approach enables information sharing between law enforcement and teams at schools with a systematic approach to accountability and follow-up. A core element is building a positive culture and climate and a protected method of communication for youth to share information concerning their safety or the safety of others.

One of the findings in our research showed that in 81% of violent incidents in U.S. schools, someone other than the attacker/actor knew it was going to happen but did not have an informed way to report it.

Safe2Tell has created a safe, anonymous mode for all individuals to report such information, and has helped to prevent not only school shootings, but also bullying, suicide, substance abuse and other health concerns.

I’m proud to say Safe2Tell is now keeping our children and schools safer across the entire state of Colorado.

What are you doing at schools with Safe2Tell?

Susan: If you want to truly focus on intervention and prevention, you have to start at the epicenter — schools. For a lot of kids, school is the only place they feel safe. Safe2Tell works proactively with schools to help its teachers, administrators and others, through extensive education, outreach, training, and presentations, to know the indicators and signs of potential violence and other youth concerns, to be knowledgeable about resources and how to intervene.
Safe2Tell also works very closely with other key stakeholders, like Kempe, which is making a crucial impact through research and multi-disciplinary approaches to find solutions to better protect our children and youth.

Together, we are truly creating an environment of ‘Not just see something, say something… but also adults DO something.’ There really is strength in numbers, and we want to educate as many people as we can, so these life-changing issues don’t get brushed under the rug.

What are we as communities, organizations and schools doing to prevent school shootings and accelerated mental health crises from happening?

Susan: Prevention is the key. Being informed on childhood trauma — how to prevent it and how to recognize signs of such trauma is absolutely necessary in order to educate and empower our youth on how to stay safe.

It’s really scary stuff but we’re trying to make it not so scary by offering practical and proactive intervention and prevention tips. By operationalizing those things, we can reduce the violence and number of traumatic events taking place in our schools.

What do you hope people walk away from your presentation having learned?

Susan: We can all agree that we don’t want bad things to happen to our children. The key is working together to intervene and prevent potential violence and other youth issues. Together, we can provide more hope and health. Most people truly want to make a difference, they just don’t know how. Our goal is to show them how.

Visit the Safe2Tell website to learn more about its programs. You can also hear Susan speak at Kempe’s 2020 Luncheon on Friday, March 13 in Denver. Tickets are available here.

Addressing Childhood Trauma through Positive Youth Development

Although youth who have experienced trauma and are placed in foster care are at risk for adverse outcomes, they are also capable of demonstrating remarkable resilience. Fostering Healthy Futures® (FHF) is a positive youth development program, which rejects the deficit model and focuses on the promotion of strengths. FHF employs 1:1 mentoring and group-based skills training to promote healthy youth development and reduce trauma-related symptoms and behaviors. This innovative program was developed at Kempe in 2002 by Heather Taussig, Ph.D. and her colleagues and it has demonstrated numerous positive outcomes. 

FHF was initially designed for preadolescent children in out-of-home care but a teen adaptation has also demonstrated positive outcomes.  This year, the FHF program will become more readily available for pre-teen and teen participants, as The Kempe Foundation provided a grant in 2019 to expand the availability and implementation of the program in Colorado communities.

Jessica Corvinus, Director of Dissemination for Fostering Healthy Futures, is trying to scale the program and make it available to more youth. One way to do that involves identifying other organizations that may be able to run the FHF program, thereby expanding programming.

Jessica and her colleagues are also piloting the “Acing Healthy Futures” program for youth ages 9-11 who are not in the foster care system but do have a history of involvement in the child welfare system and have experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

“With the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, the child welfare landscape is shifting and the system is changing,” said Ms. Corvinus. “We are trying to align with the goals of Family First which calls for keeping families together.”

How does it work? FHF builds on youth’s strengths and interests by engaging pre-teens and teens in visioning and goal-setting exercises, skills training activities and workshops to build on their competencies and reduce adverse outcomes. 

The results don’t lie. Key findings from the FHF-T program, which was tested in Colorado, demonstrated the following:

  • Children in the FHF program experienced reduced mental health (e.g., depression, anxiety) and trauma symptoms
  • Children were less likely to be receiving mental health treatment at the follow-up, which suggests cost savings of the program.
  • Finally, children who participated in FHF had fewer placement changes and greater permanency.

Findings also suggest that the FHF program is very well received, as these quotes illustrate:

“I want to say thank you. Like a million times over, like thank you, thank you, thank you, ‘cause she was such a big impact. When I thought that no one really wanted me, she was right there.”

“FHF showed me that there is people other than my family that want me to succeed, and that’s behind my back, and, you know, is rooting for me. It gave me joy to my life when it wasn’t too much joy.”

The Kempe Foundation has provided fundraising and advocacy support for the experts at The Kempe Center since its inception. The Center has been recognized as a leader in the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect for more than 45 years. Today, the Center’s programs include medical and behavioral health services, training for child welfare professionals and research on the causes and impacts of abuse.

Visit www.fosteringhealthyfutures.org to learn more. 

One Year Later: A Q&A with Dr. Kathryn Wells

A year ago this month, Kathryn Wells, MD, became the new Executive Director of the Kempe Center. A board-certified specialist in child abuse pediatrics, Dr. Wells has brought tremendous experience to this role over the last year. She shared some of her thoughts on the year’s highlights and what we can expect to see from the Kempe Center moving forward.

Q: What was your greatest takeaway from the last year?  What successes are you most proud of?

A: What I’m most proud of is the staff and faculty at the Center. They are committed to the work and to our ongoing growth, development and innovation. They have all shown a willingness to engage actively during this time of transition and I’m truly humbled and impressed by how everyone has stepped up; from strategic planning to researching the field to looking at what we bring to the table and what we can all contribute moving forward together.

Another highlight this year was building external relationships. We are most successful when we’re informed by partners and experts in the field about where we are best equipped to engage. Our partnership with the Foundation has also continued to flourish, allowing us to best serve our most vulnerable kids and families with efforts like the CARENetwork. 

Q: In what ways is the Center connecting communities and systems to support families and children?

A: Over the past year, we have made steps to further integrate tele-education and consultation services to expand our reach and offer our expertise across multiple disciplines to a broader community. The CARENetwork has allowed us to communicate with a network of designated healthcare providers in a community response to child maltreatment. We have also deepened our longstanding commitment to the support of systems facing complex and complicated cases of child maltreatment through a major restructuring of our START program. 

Q: What originally inspired your work in the child maltreatment field?

A: I can recall several experiences in my early career as a general pediatrician in a small rural community that influenced my beliefs and commitment to the work we are doing at the Kempe Center. One particular example is a child I saw in my practice who had injuries that I believed were concerning for abuse, resulting in a mandatory report to child welfare and law enforcement. The investigators sought a second opinion from the Kempe Center that ultimately led to the opinion that the injuries could have been accidental. It was at that time I learned about the Kempe Center and the expertise it held and became driven to not only seek additional training but also is the basis of my deep commitment to improving systems that serve our most vulnerable children and families and the professionals that serve them. I am now honored to lead the Kempe Center in that work.

Q: What are some things we can expect to see from the Center in the future?

A: During this past year, the Kempe Center has initiated an intensive strategic planning process that will focus on achieving our mission and vision. We have evaluated our scope of work and are considering how we can adapt our current efforts to expand our reach and promote collaboration across disciplines to better serve our community. This process has included a tremendous amount of work including an internal culture and climate survey, an all staff retreat and over 50 key interviews with stakeholders in our professional community.

The Kempe Center will announce a strategic 5-year plan this April that will include the tactics and timeline for how Kempe plans to move into the future. To learn more about the Kempe Center, click here

 

De-Bunking the Myths of Mental Health

Over 200,000 children and adolescents in Colorado have diagnosable and treatable mental health conditions. Alarmingly, less than one quarter of these children and adolescents receive any type of professional care. Only in recent times are social services and community resources focusing on the prevention of toxic stress, its impacts on mental health, and the promotion of healthy social and emotional development.

On February 7, 2019, we convened a group of pediatric and mental health experts to help educate our supporters and partners on mental health issues facing Colorado’s children and their families. Here, we de-bunk the four most common myths of mental health and share what we learned from this important discussion:

Myth #1: Behavioral health and mental health are the same thing.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, to do so is incorrect. Mental health focuses on a person’s psychological state, whereas behavioral health is a broader term that includes mental health. Behavioral health looks at how behaviors impact an individual’s physical health and well-being, but does not necessarily address all of the external, environmental factors that may influence an individual’s well-being, such as poverty, discrimination or abuse.

The negative stigma that surrounds mental health has pushed many healthcare and education professionals to reference behavioral health when talking to individuals and families because it’s an easier entry point into a discussion about mental health. Ultimately, the most important thing is to engage people in conversation and identify the appropriate treatment, regardless of how the topic is presented.

Myth #2: Mental health issues are hereditary.

Some psychiatric diagnoses, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and ADHD, are likely to be hereditary, meaning they are caused by a gene mutation that is inherited from a parent. But other mental health issues are likely a combination of genetics and lifestyle, which means that certain genes may increase your risk of developing a mental illness, and environmental factors may trigger it.

The vast majority of children and youth in mental health treatment programs have histories of maltreatment, traumatic exposure and chronic stress or adversity. These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can damage the developing brain and lead to problems in learning and behavior, as well as increased susceptibility to physical and mental illness. So, although hereditary and genetic factors can influence mental health, our environments, relationships and external supports are significantly more impactful.

Myth #3: If you have a mental illness as a child, it’s something you must live with for the rest of your life.

There has been significant progress in developing trauma-informed and evidence-based treatment programs that can shift negative trajectories and improve outcomes for children. Here locally, Children’s Hospital Colorado is home to a wide array of outpatient, day treatment and inpatient services that provide a coordinated, multidisciplinary approach to evaluation and treatment for children and adolescents ages 5 to 17.

While medical professionals can effectively treat most children, it is more challenging to address the environmental factors that trigger mental health issues in children. There has been a movement toward mental health treatment providers working collaboratively with patients and their families to identify the underlying triggers and help them through crises together. When everyone in the family is provided with the resources and skills to help a child get better, the positive outcomes are considerably more sustainable.

Myth #4: When a child acts out, it is clearly a behavioral health issue.

Dr. C. Henry Kempe often remarked that if you do not understand someone’s behavior, you do not understand their history. When someone acts out violently or aggressively, it is likely because they have experienced a traumatic event or series of events. Breaking the stigma of mental health requires us to look at the issue through a different lens – one that considers an individual’s history and recognizes the myriad of factors contributing to their current well-being. As a community, we can help build up children’s resilience and promote healthy behaviors by ensuring they have supportive relationships and positive environments that nurture their growth and development.


The mental health crisis is one of many threats to the healthy development of Colorado’s children. Over the next few months, Kempe will continue to bring together community partners to help shine a light on these connections and how we can partner as a community to end the cycle of abuse and positively impact child development. We appreciate your support of our efforts to give all children the opportunity to thrive.

 

 

Evidence-Based and Family-Focused Mental Health Care in Colorado

Trauma is a costly public health problem for all Coloradans. Most often, trauma occurs as a result of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, violence, disaster and other emotionally harmful experiences. Traumatic events induce feelings of powerlessness, fear, hopelessness and a constant state of alert, as well as feelings of shame, guilt, rage and isolation.

Without treatment, children who experience repeated exposure to traumatic events have an increased risk of developing mental and substance use disorders, suicide and chronic physical ailments. They are also more likely to experience increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and may even face premature death.

We recently connected with Shannon Van Deman, PhD, who leads the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado and asked her to share more about how they are addressing childhood trauma.

 

What is the role of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute?

At Children’s Hospital Colorado, we have a fundamental responsibility to provide mental health care for our patients. Our services are child-centered and family-focused, meaning we work collaboratively with our patients and their families to help them through crises and empower them to develop the resources and skills to get better.

The Pediatric Mental Health Institute is one of the largest providers in the Rocky Mountain region that offers a full continuum of psychiatric care and provide a broad spectrum of psychiatric services, including outpatient, day treatment and inpatient services for children and adolescents. I’m particularly proud of our Medical Day Treatment program, which is a joint venture with Aurora Public Schools. It’s an accredited school program that employs two certified teachers along with two paraprofessionals from the Aurora Public School system. The program is also staffed with nurses, a psychologist, social worker and other medical professionals who work together with youth and families to reach academic goals and improve physical and emotional health.

What do you want Coloradans to know about trauma?

Today in Colorado, suicide is the leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 24, and an estimated one out of six teens has a diagnosable mental health condition. At Children’s, we’ve seen the need for psychiatric treatment go up year over year, and we’ve tripled the number of outpatient services in the last five years. Prevention, early identification, early intervention and treatment are needed now more than ever, and we’ve been working alongside Kempe to ensure Colorado’s health care providers are educated on the complexities of trauma and how it impacts their delivery.

How can we positively shape the mental health of Colorado children?

It is completely normal for children and adolescents to have difficulty managing their thoughts and feelings, but some aspects of our culture have told us we need to face these challenges alone. My hope is that through our work, we will help families engage in more conversations that break the stigma of mental health. It’s incredibly valuable for individuals and families with this lived experience to talk about their challenges and tell their story to others going through the same things. It’s also very important for Coloradans to advocate for child-focused legislation because public policy decisions can dramatically shape the health of children, for better or worse. I encourage anyone who wants to learn more about advocacy for child health to sign up as a Child Health Champion.