• Those who separate immigrant children from parents might as well be beating them with truncheons

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    Central American asylum seekers, including a Honduran girl, 2, and her mother, are taken into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border in June in McAllen, Texas.

    They all agree. Physicians for Human Rights. American Medical Association. American Academy of Pediatrics. American Psychiatric Association. National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. 

    Separating children from their parents or caregivers hurts children. Between April 19 and May 31, nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents. As Celeste Fremon reported in WitnessLa,  that number has now passed 2,300 children (and is increasing by more than 60/day), with another 11,000 locked up in everything from large cages to a converted Walmart. 

    “To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma,” says a petition signed by more than 9,000 mental health professionals and 172 organizations.

    Many people who see reports of children separated from their parents might think that, because they’re not crying, that they’ve adjusted. Or, if they are crying, they’ll eventually stop and get over it. 

    But here’s the reality: In terms of the effects on children’s brains, those who participate in separating children from their parents and locking them up in detainment centers might as well be beating them with truncheons.

    That might seem harsh, especially for those well-intentioned people working for the Department of Health and Human Services who are trying to do their best to care for immigrant kids taken from their parents. But the reality is that kids’ brains can’t distinguish between toxic stress caused by being separated from a parent, or toxic stress caused by living in an unsafe neighborhood, or toxic stress caused by living in a war zone, or toxic stress caused by witnessing violence outside the home, or toxic stress caused by suffering a beating, or toxic stress caused by living with an alcoholic parent, or toxic stress caused by being bullied. 

    It’s all toxic stress, and it all damages a child’s developing brain.

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  • Middle school tackles everybody’s trauma; result is calmer, happier kids, teachers and big drop in suspensions

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    John Jimno

    During the 2014/2015 school year, things were looking grim at Park Middle School in Antioch, CA. At the time, staff couldn’t corral student disruptions. Teacher morale was plummeting. By the end of February 2015, 192 kids of the 997 students had been suspended — 19.2 percent of the student population.

    “I was watching really good people burning out from the [teaching] profession and suspending kids over and over and nothing was changing behavior-wise, and teachers were not happy about it,” says John Jimno, who was in his second year as principal at that time.

    So, Jimno and the staff took advantage of a program that Contra Costa County was integrating into its Youth Justice Initiative and, in doing so, joined a national trauma-informed school movement that has seen hundreds of schools across the country essentially replace a “What’s wrong with you?” approach to dealing with kids who are having troubles with asking kids, “What happened to you?”, and then providing them help.

    And, in just two years, by integrating this radically different approach into all parts of the school and rebuilding many of its practices from the inside out, suspensions plummeted more than 50% to just 8.4 percent of the student population in just two years.

    The program that the Park Middle School educators piggybacked on in Fall 2015 was theSanctuary Model, a trauma-informed method for changing organizational culture from one that is toxic to one that is healthy. Jimno and a group of teachers and administrators participated in monthly county-wide “train the trainers” workshops where they learned how to integrate the model into their school; then they trained the rest of their staff. The model, developed by Dr. Sandra Bloom, a psychiatrist and assistant

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  • Early childhood educators learn new ways to spot trauma triggers, build resiliency in preschoolers

    Julie Kurtz, co-director, trauma-informed practices in early childhood education, WestEd Center for Child & Family Studies/photo by Laurie Udesky

    A hug may be comforting to many children, but for a child who has experienced trauma, it may not feel safe.

    That’s an example used by Julie Kurtz, co-director of trauma-informed practices in early childhood education at the WestEd Center for Child & Family Studies (CCFS), as she begins a trauma training session. Her audience, preschool teachers and staff of the San Francisco, CA-based Wu Yee Children’s Services at San Francisco’s Women’s Building, listen attentively.

    Kurtz leads them into a description of how a child’s young brain functions, how young children – regardless of whether they have experienced trauma or not — live in their reptile brain.

    “What’s the job of the reptile brain?” she asks.

    “Survival” comes a response. “Yes, it’s fight, flight or freeze,” she says.

    With guidance from adults, she explains, children’s immature brains develop neurons that build bridges to the rational part of the brain. The rational, executive part of the brain, she continues, is a place of calm, where we can plan, solve problems, and imagine how someone else interacting with us is feeling.

    But if a child is in a state of terror, explains Kurtz, all bets are off. In that state, a child can’t hear what you’re saying or express herself in words, Kurtz says.

    “What’s the strategy to calm a reptile brain?” she asks.

    “It depends on the child…one idea is holding the child,” offers a teacher.

    ”Reassure the child,” suggests another teacher.

    “Bring them to the current time,” another chimes in.

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  • Tonier Cain Deserves an Evidence-Based Apology

    Tonier Cain. Photo: Yi-Chin Lee/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

    Editor’s note: Over 15 years, Tonier Cain was arrested 83 times, and convicted 66 times. She was addicted to crack. She was a prostitute. She had four children and lost them to child protective services. Remarkably, she didn’t give up hope, and one day, she found someone in the system who knew about trauma and who didn’t give up on her. Cain now advocates for trauma-informed care in prisons and mental health facilities. She gives speeches around the country and the world. Cissy White was fortunate to attend a conference in North Carolina where Cain gave a presentation. This is Cissy’s reaction.
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    When Tonier Cain gave a keynote presentation at the Benchmarks’ Partnering for Excellence conference in North Carolina, it took me months to recover from her speech.
    Seriously. It was hard to stand after she spoke. When I did, I went right to a yoga mat in the self-care calm room for a while. I took off my high heels and curled up in a ball for a bit.
    I’m still digesting her words. It’s not that the content was intense and heavy, though it was. It wasn’t that she talked about a ton of traumatic experiences she had survived – though she did.

    It’s not that my own trauma was triggered, though that happened.

    It was the way she spoke about being let down so often by the systems she was often in and how often she was re-traumatized by them.

    It’s the way she challenged my thinking so that I can no longer think about adverse childhood experiences without thinking about all of the ACEs – adverse childhood experiences and adverse community experiences and how intertwined they are.

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