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Niswonger program aims to help traumatized children

Becky Campbell • Jan 8, 2019 at 12:22 AM

Community engagement is a wonderful thing, especially when it creates a new avenue to provide intervention and prevention methods that can reduce the impact of childhood trauma, or for that matter, prevent the trauma itself.

Trauma-informed care has become a movement of sorts in the Johnson City area, and with a newly created position at Niswonger Children’s Hospital, there is potential for that system of care to impact the huge healthcare footprint now occupied by Ballad Health.

Becky Haas, who learned about trauma-informed care during the time she administered a police department crime-reduction grant program — Targeted Community Crime Prevention — and Dr. Andi Clements, an East Tennessee State University psychology professor and researcher, discovered how childhood adversity can affect a person’s life and their choices.

Haas spent five years at the Johnson City Police Department administering the TCCRP grant and was hired full time when it expired in order to continue the community involvement work she had started. Haas first learned about trauma informed care, and ACEs — Adverse Childhood Experience — when she wrote the grant for the Family Justice Center, then she took that information into community engagement meetings.

“On a criminal justice side, when I saw the numbers of children witness violence in the home or witnessing a parent’s arrest, some that could send a child to the hospital or healthcare, it really made sense to bring in the healthcare … it became such a great prevention piece.”

When Haas led a trauma-informed care training session at the Boys & Girls Club, one of the agency’s board members — Laura Levine, the wife of Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine — and a Ballad nurse manager who was also there, took great interest and wanted to implement the training for Niswonger.

“They had immediate buy-in,” Haas said. “We had several conversations on how to bring the model into the hospital.”

Lisa Carter, Niswonger CEO, began monthly meetings in 2017 with staff about the program.

“I started asking staff questions: how often do kids come in who we treat for medical conditions that have all kinds of social dynamics and other things going on in their lives ... these things we see that lead to toxic stress,” Carter said. “It was overwhelming. That’s when we really beefed up our efforts and started the monthly meetings to figure out from a facility side how could we get on the journey to become trauma-informed in the hospital, and that’s grown into Becky coming on here and taking it more throughout the region and not just Johnson City.”

Carter said Levine got on board immediately.

“Alan really got on board, listening to Becky and what she’s done in the community, knowing the work Dr. Andi Clements had done at ETSU .... with our relationship with ETSU, Alan made the commitment as a health system. We have the opportunity to really make this bigger and broader and reach the entire region.”

Carter said implementing trauma-informed care is about the betterment of the children in the region Ballad serves.

“I believe in this whole-heartedly,” Carter said. “I see it. If we can somehow mitigate these adverse effects that come from these childhood experiences. It’s even about prevention; we need to prevent ACEs from occurring. How do we help in infancy (to) build strong brains and have the brains of children wired so they can deal with stress later on in life.

“The ultimate goal is to build a center of excellence for trauma-informed care,” Carter said. “This is a vision for the entire footprint in the Ballad system. Some of the most serious challenges facing cities today is that children did not have the support growing up.”

With Haas on board at Ballad, Carter said she sees a bright future for Niswonger’s efforts to mitigate childhood trauma.

“This is our responsibility. We really take responsibility for children in this region; it’s our responsibility to tackle the problems not just the kids who walk through our doors,” but all children.

“This is one of the biggest challenges of our region ... the merger lends an opportunity to reach more families and more children to have a larger impact,” she said.

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