From abuse to adoption: Three sisters share their stories

AhappyMy girls were removed from their biological family due to longstanding neglect and significant physical and sexual abuse. They are now 7, 8, and 10 years old and each of them has an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) score of 10 (out of 10). (Got Your ACE Score?) This is the only test they have all aced. Many labeled them “damaged beyond repair”.

Over the last two years, my family has spent countless hours in individual and family therapy making sense of our own stories, learning how to cope with them, and building the strength required to share our stories outside of our family. And in understanding, embracing, and sharing their stories, our girls are proving that it is possible to overcome the negative effects of a traumatic childhood. Strengthening protective factors and increasing resilience can be just as powerful as the cumulative adverse experiences.

For decades, research has supported the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related diagnoses. There are many trauma-informed therapeutic models that use CBT strategies – generally known as trauma focused-CBT (TF-CBT).  For children, these models often include working individually as well as with non-offending parents and/or caregivers. Time-limited sessions focus on psycho-education, relaxation techniques, affect management, developing healthy self-care, interpersonal relationships, and coping skills, as well as exposure and habituation to triggering memories.

The culmination of most models is completing a trauma narrative. I vividly remember anticipating this part of the process. It is the grand finale and making it to and through this benchmark meant we were far along in the recovery process and everything was going to be okay. The survivor works with the therapist to write and depict (if appropriate) their personal trauma story including the good, the bad, and the ugly. Once comfortable with the story, it is generally shared with loved ones. In our case, the girls shared their narratives with both of us.

There is something truly empowering in being brave enough to share. I have had the privilege of seeing the added courage, strength, self-awareness, self-esteem, and confidence the girls have found through writing and sharing their stories. While we cannot change ACEs, we can build our resiliency, a process that has life-saving implications.

I am incredibly proud to share Chelsea, Savanna, and Shianne’s stories with you.

Continue reading

Can School Heal Children in Pain?

Aredford

After learning about the overwhelming effects of childhood trauma, I decided to make a film about a school that’s adopted a “trauma-informed” lens.

Documentaries are no walk in the park. They take a lot of time and money; they have a way of making a mockery out of your narrative plans. They must share the attention of an audience that is increasingly losing more and more of it.

Why bother? It’s a good question. For me, I have one simple bar that all my films must clear: an “oh my God!” moment. If a story does not elicit that reaction from deep within my bones, I don’t do it. I count on that sense of awe, concern, wonder, and alarm to carry me through the long haul of making the film. To do otherwise, well — it just seems stupid.

Continue reading

Resilience practices overcome students’ ACEs in trauma-informed high school, say the data

The cast and crew of Paper Tigers take a bow after the sold-out premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival.

The cast and crew of Paper Tigers take a bow after a sold-out screening at the Seattle International Film Festival.

__________________________________

Three years ago, the story about how Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tried a new approach to school discipline and saw suspensions drop 85% struck a nerve. It went viral – twice — with more than 700,000 page views. Paper Tigers, a documentary that filmmaker James Redford did about the school — premiered last Thursday night to a sold-out crowd at the Seattle International Film Festival. Hundreds of communities around the country are clamoring for screenings.

Continue reading

The truth about trauma and the impact of terror, and how I learned resilience

Mom, Ann, Dad, Leisa, 1972 ______________________

Mom, Ann, Dad, Leisa, 1972
______________________

I was about seven years old when my mom first told me about the abuse she had suffered at the hand of her mom, my grandmother. I remember this vividly because I had just poured a can of grape soda over my three-year-old brother’s head in a “do you dare me, yes I dare you” game I was playing with my five-year-old sister. My brother, of course, started screaming as if he was being murdered, and my gorgeous, stay-at-home mom bolted out the front door of our early 1900s home as if she was going to kill someone.

The look on her face was enough to scare all of us. Even my brother, who seconds earlier was wailing at the top of his lungs, turned his hysterics into mini whimpers. My mom, however, was just getting started.

“Who did this?” she yelled.

My brother pointed at me, my sister pointed at me… and I pointed at my sister.

My mom said, “All of you had better make up your minds about this because the one thing I hate more than anything is being lied to.”

And so, knowing that I was in way over my head, I said to my younger brother, “You were looking the other way, you heard Ann, she was daring me to do it, and when I wouldn’t she did it.” My brother turned his arm and pointed at my sister.

My sister shrieked, “Why are you lying? Why are you blaming me? You always blame me.”

By now, several of our neighbors had stepped onto to their front steps to watch.  The old lady at the house to the right was just shaking her head in disgust. It was the summer of 1976. Most of the fathers in the neighborhood worked in blue-collar jobs. Most of the neighborhood moms were home with their kids, at least in the summers. The city streets had sidewalks, and the houses were separated by narrow driveways. My mom used to tell us not to air our dirty laundry for the neighbors to see, and this was exactly what we were doing.

Continue reading

Creating a culture of compassion in schools — Cherokee Point Elementary, San Diego, CA

In 2013, I posted a story about Cherokee Point Elementary School in the City Heights district of San Diego, CA. It was transitioning to becoming a trauma-informed school. Here’s a video that was posted this month about the school.

Minnesota high school screens students for ACEs to develop trauma-informed education

RomeoAndJuliet_TheaterParkSquare_March2015

Paladin students on a field trip to Minneapolis to see the play, Romeo and Juliet.

__________________________

At many high schools across the U.S, it’s spring break time. Most kids and teachers can’t wait to get away from school with their families for a week.

Not so at Paladin Career & Technical High School in Blaine, MN, outside Minneapolis.

“The week before break the level of anxiety gets pretty extreme around here,” says Leisa Irwin executive director of Paladin. “It’s the same before any holiday break.”

The kids don’t want to leave…for good reason. There’s nothing fun or relaxing about spending a week at home. Most students come from homes and neighborhoods filled with violence, alcohol and drug abuse. They live with families where humiliation, neglect, mental illness and hopelessness are part of everyday life. A stark 34% of Paladin students are homeless; they hang out on dangerous streets for a week in cold weather. The school is their haven.

Continue reading

A trauma-informed school wasn’t part of my plan, but now it’s my life’s work

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.40.07 PMIn the summer of 2011, July 22nd to be exact, I took an interim position at Paladin Career and Technical High School as the executive director, while the school board started a search for a permanent director. At the time, I owned two companies and Paladin was one of my clients. I loved what the school did and helping to bridge the leadership gap during a search process was an easy decision to make. But I also loved working with the other schools, where I served as the chief financial officer through my consulting business. The decision to take on that interim role has irreversibly changed my life. And I can’t imagine doing anything else. I was hired as the executive director, no longer interim, at the end of the school year, and I closed my consulting company.

I came to Paladin with a business focus.  I wanted the school to be the best it could be. I wanted the data to reflect its success and I wanted the story of the school’s hard work to be indisputable. In the world of education, that meant telling the story of test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates, and fiscal strength. It meant telling a story that was in alignment with all the pressure from news media and legislation, a story that focused on core standards and high stakes testing.

Continue reading