Foster youth intern lands White House internship; working to make foster care trauma-informed

Amnoni Myers takes the stage at the 2014 Angels in Adoption celebration in Washington D.C. [CCAI photo]

Amnoni Myers takes the stage at the 2014 Angels in Adoption celebration in Washington D.C. [CCAI photo]


By Daniel Heimpel

This fall, I traveled to Washington D.C. to attend the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s (CCAI) Angels in Adoption celebration.

The event, which draws stars from entertainment and D.C.’s political elite, always fills the cavernous Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, providing a suitable stage for some real heroes.

One of these was Amnoni Myers, a 26-year-old member of CCAI’s 2014 Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI). I remember her taking the stage, somewhere in between U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), to tell the crowd about the FYI program.

For Amnoni, CCAI’s marquee program meant interning for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and contributing to the increasingly influential policy report that the foster youth interns produce every summer. In that report, Amnoni drew from a robust body of research sparked by the 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study to deliver a compelling case for increased efforts to make the foster care system “trauma-informed.”

On stage at the Reagan Building, Amnoni described her experience and told the crowd that she had applied for an internship at the White House. Whoops and applause rose from the hundred or more tables tightly spaced across the floor.

Last week, Amnoni stopped by my office in San Francisco, with some good news in hand. In January, she will move back to D.C. to start that White House internship with the Domestic Policy Council.

Instead of brimming with pride, Amnoni was sanguine about the opportunity. Having come up in foster care, many of her peers and extended family never had the chance at an internship at the White

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San Diego Youth Services embraces a trauma-informed approach; kids do better, staff stay longer, programs more effective

Staff of the San Diego Youth Services TAY Academy welcome all Transition Age Youth (TAY) to drop-in. Left to right: Vanessa Arteaga, Indie Landrum, Stephen Carroll, and Gillian Leal.

Staff of the San Diego Youth Services TAY Academy welcome all Transition Age Youth (TAY) to drop-in. Left to right: Vanessa Arteaga, Indie Landrum, Stephen Carroll, and Gillian Leal.


In 2010, 16-year-old Indie Landrum ran away from an unstable home where he lived with his mom and his grandmother. His older sister ran away when she was 16, and both of his brothers were incarcerated. Indie sought emergency housing at the San Diego Youth Services (SDYS) Storefront shelter, and lived there for several months before going into a long-term group home.

During his time at Storefront, SDYS began a dramatic transformation: the process of becoming a trauma-informed organization. Basically, that means instead of a staff member angrily asking a youth who’s acting out, “What’s wrong with you?” and punishing the behavior, staff members ask, “What happened to you?” and work with the kid on healing and recovery.

The results? Significant. Youth who were less likely to use the services now do, and more often. Police involvement and foster home/group home placements are down. And SDYS staff turnover has dropped. When Indie first arrived, “there were very specific rules that had to be followed to stay in shelter. If you weren’t in by 7:30 p.m., you couldn’t stay the night,” says Indie. “It’s not that they didn’t care, it just didn’t matter why you weren’t there.” At that time, SDYS shelter staff worked with youth on a system of rules and rewards: You made your bed, you got a point. It’s the way most youth shelters across the U.S. work. If a kid loses a certain number of points, the kid gets put on a seven-day restriction phase. It’s modeled after how parents discipline kids when they mess up at home — no phone, no TV, no video games. Kids are still required to go to dinner, group meetings, and shower, but they have to spend their hour and a half of free time in bed. If the kid continues to lose points while on restriction, they are asked to leave the shelter. Lose points on the first day of restriction? Out for the remaining six days and nights. “The belief was that when kids have to fend for themselves outside of shelter it makes them

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How CA provides children’s mental health services under Katie A. settlement, part 2: home-based services

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By Melinda Clemmons

This is part two of a two-part look at mental health services mandated by the settlement of Katie A. v Bonta, a class-action lawsuit brought against the State of California over its lack of community-based mental health services for youths.

Having been removed from his parents’ home six months earlier, eight-year-old Michael didn’t need another disruption in his life.

As described in part one of this two-part series, his recent outbursts had pushed Michael’s foster parents to the breaking point. At home and school, his anger and grief erupted in physical and verbal aggression toward his foster parents, sister, and classmates.

His foster parents were on the verge of giving the county notice that they could no longer care for him.

Enter the Fred Finch Youth Center, to which Michael was referred by his county caseworker in an attempt to stabilize his placement and access needed mental health services.

Fred Finch clinician Rogelia Becerra and Michael’s Child and Family Team conducted an assessment and decided that Intensive Home-Based Services (IHBS) would help Michael learn how to function successfully at home and in school. Under the Katie A settlement, IHBS must be provided when it is determined during the assessment phase of ICC (Intensive Care Coordination) that intensive in-home and community-based support is necessary for the ICC plan to be successful.

As the name indicates, Intensive Home-Based Services are not provided in an office setting. They take place in the environments where the child is having difficulty regulating his emotions and controlling his own behavior.

Joslin Herberich, senior director of community mental health programs for Fred Finch’s Oakland office provides an example: An adolescent who is having trouble maintaining a job because of anxiety about getting on a bus can have a behavior specialist accompany the teen to the bus stop and coach her

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Paper Tigers trailer…a peek into documentary about Lincoln High School

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Documentary filmmaker James Redford released the trailer for Paper Tigers, a documentary that follows four teens who attend Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA. Lincoln was the first high school in the country to integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, which resulted in an 85 percent decline in suspensions and a 40% decline in expulsions after the first year. After four years, suspensions had dropped 90 percent, expulsions dropped to zero, and graduation rates increased five-fold.

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The town of The Dalles, OR, remakes itself as a trauma-sensitive sanctuary


Tucked into a curve of the Columbia River, which marks the watery border between Washington and Oregon, lies the small town of The Dalles. Its claims to fame include being a major Indian trading site for 10,000 years, a camping spot for Lewis and Clark in 1805, and the terminus of the Oregon Trail.

Now The Dalles is seeking a different kind of notoriety. This city of 13,000 is the first in the nation to seek certification from the Sanctuary Institute—a model of organizational change that challenges every part of the community to examine and remake itself through a trauma-informed lens.

Dalles (pronounced “dahl,” with a silent “s”) is a French word for “slabs” of rock around and over which the Columbia once roared.  The population of this rural community, 70 miles east of Portland, is mostly white, 30% Hispanic, and less than 10% other ethnicities. “It’s small enough that I’m able to call the chief of police and go out for coffee,” says Trudy Townsend, assistant to the superintendent of the North Wasco County School District 21.

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Alberta Family Wellness Initiative changes minds by informing Canadians about effects of toxic stress on kids’ brains

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A cartoon outline of a child – in a video – stands alone near a cracked sidewalk heaped with obstacles: giant red bricks labeled “neglect,” “abuse” and “parental addiction.” The voice-over says: “It’s possible to fix some of the damage of toxic stress later on, but it’s easier, more effective and less expensive to build solid brain architecture in the first place.”

The four-minute animation—which covers toxic stress, caregiver-child interaction and the role of communities in building healthy brains—has reached many people since its release in October 2013. But the video is just one snippet of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI), a project aimed to better the lives of children and families in one of Canada’s westernmost provinces.

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

The AFWI, launched in 2007 by the private Norlien Foundation, has an ambitious agenda: to promote the use of scientific knowledge about early brain and biological development in order to change beliefs, policies and practices related to children, families and communities—in short, to “bridge the gap between what we know and what we do,” according to a 2013 AFWI report.

The AFWI began its work by capturing the attention and engagement of high-level “change-makers”—government officials, community leaders, policy experts, academics and administrators who could learn the newest science, discuss it in depth, then take that story home to influence research, policy and practice.

“In the early days, the focus of our effort was on policy-makers and professionals rather than the public. You need to start changing the thinking of those in the system who are making decisions before you start focusing on a public audience,” said Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president of Norlien.

AFWI focuses on the “core story of brain development,” a series of metaphors grounded in emerging biomedical science and developed with the help of the FrameWorks Institute  and the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University.

  • Brains are not just born; they are built through a child’s experiences and interaction.

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Maine Resilience Building Network changes how people think about childhood trauma

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Sue Mackey Andrews will talk to anyone about adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs: Pediatricians. Early childcare workers. Parent advocacy groups. And those on the front lines who work with kids, like the longtime school bus driver from rural Maine, a gruff and taciturn man who insisted, during a half-day school district inservice, that trauma and resilience had nothing to do with his work.

The driver also told Andrews that he would not start the bus each day until he had made eye contact with every single child and greeted him or her by name. And that, Andrews responded, was exactly the relevance of his work to build resilience.

The tagline of the Maine Resilience Building Network (MRBN), which Andrews co-facilitates, is “Join the Conversation.” The

Sue Mackey Andrews, co-facilitator, Maine Resilience Building Network

Sue Mackey Andrews, co-facilitator, Maine Resilience Building Network

group, formed in the spring of 2012, brings together practitioners in medical care, education and behavioral health, along with those working in business, law enforcement, the military, juvenile justice and faith communities.

Since its early meetings, comprising a half-dozen people, all of them doing work based on research into childhood adversity, MRBN has grown to include 77 members, with reach into all of Maine’s 16 counties.

From the beginning, said Andrews and MRBN co-facilitator Leslie Forstadt, associate professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the group agreed that the message should focus on wellness and healing rather than illness and trauma.

The word “resilience” had to be part of the name because, said Andrews, “we talk about how it’s never too late to realize your ACEs and, through support and personal discovery, overcome them.” The term “building” captured the sense of a growing effort, and “network” aptly described how individual sites would function autonomously while sharing their innovations, challenges and questions.

The term “ACEs” has its origins in the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. The study revealed a direct link between 10 types of childhood adversity and the adult onset of chronic disease (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, etc.), mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. It showed that childhood trauma was very common — two-thirds of adults have

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