Child Abuse and Neglect

In Like a Lion

When a child suffers from chronic neglect at an early age, it greatly impacts his ability to form healthy attachments with others. One of our tasks here at Mount Saint Vincent is to encourage the development of safe and strong relationships. Through modeling and encouragement, we help children learn a new way of thinking, communicating, and being.

For reasons known only to them, Billy’s parents never picked up their infant son. For hours on end, they left him in a baby carrier, his cries unanswered. No cuddling, no hugs, no gentle caresses from his mother’s hand.

After Billy was adopted by a caring family, the attachment issues caused by the severe neglect he endured became readily apparent. Because he was never exposed to them, he lacked the skills or even the knowledge of how to build and maintain relationships. That was when his parents realized they needed help. They turned to Mount Saint Vincent, a Denver-based treatment provider for children facing the challenges of trauma, mental illness, abuse or neglect. Billy was six years old.

“Many people don’t realize that severe neglect can inflict as much harm on a child as physical or sexual abuse,” said Mount Saint Vincent Executive Director Kirk Ward. “The long-term deprivation of a child’s basic physical, developmental, or emotional needs can lead to mental or even physical health issues well into adulthood.”

Early in his treatment, Billy’s therapist realized that the first step in helping him was to build trust. She scheduled positive relational time with adults throughout the day. At first, just one therapist would take Billy out of class for 10 minutes and spend time doing something fun, such as playing basketball or swinging on the playground swings. Then he would go back to class. Not only were the breaks trust- and relationship-building, they helped ease any stress or frustration he felt in school.

Billy enjoyed spending time with therapy animals and clearly cared for them. As he played with Harper, his favorite therapy dog, his therapist explained how he could parallel his caring toward animals and carry that over to the staff and his peers.

Over time, more staff members volunteered to spend time with Billy, and he began looking forward to his one-on-one interactions. “He started out with a very small group of people he trusted, which slowly expanded to include more and more staff in his circle of friends,” said Residential Clinical Supervisor Teresa Coen. “It just took time and consistency.”

By the end of his stay, Billy was a star student. He was focused, could complete his school work, and was regarded as a positive peer.

The staff at Mount Saint Vincent was excited to receive an update that Billy’s adoptive mother recently sent. “He’s doing so well! He has made friends and really enjoys his new school,” she wrote. “He misses you all a lot. You made such an impact on him.”

Children who have been abused or neglected often exhibit challenging behaviors, but with clinical treatment and a healthy dose of patience, those challenges can be overcome.

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Child Trauma Expert Visits Denver, MSV

Internationally renowned child trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is nothing if not passionate about his work. During two half-day symposiums, held April 12, 2017 at the PPA Event Center in Denver, Colo., capacity crowds totaling 300-plus child advocates listened intently to his remarks. Mount Saint Vincent organized and hosted the event.

Perry noted that as scientists have learned more about how the brain works, it has become increasingly clear that many traditional trauma treatment approaches that are highly verbal are not particularly effective when a person is disregulated, anxious, or overwhelmed.

“Trauma alters the systems in the lower parts of the brain that mediate the stress response,” Perry said. “These systems are much more likely to be responsive to things we refer to as somatosensory.” Perry noted that Mount Saint Vincent is stepping ahead of the traditional treatment model by focusing on activities that target the part of the brain impacted by trauma. Actions such as grooming a dog, going for a walk, dancing, or molding modeling clay can be beneficial. “Things that seem nontherapeutic in the conventional sense actually have tremendous therapeutic power when it comes to treating trauma,” he said.

Perry believes that the more “relational wealth” a child has in his or her life — recurring, positive interactions with family members, teachers, coaches, after-school care providers and others — the more likely the child is to recover. “Relational interactions make all the difference,” he said. “It’s the nature and the number of positive relational interactions you have that both protect you from present stressors and help you heal from past trauma.”Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

Perry is hopeful that the database of statistics his organization is compiling will be instrumental in affecting policy change. The ChildTrauma Academy’s massive database includes data from literally hundreds of clinical child trauma cases from organizations like Mount Saint Vincent worldwide. He believes the strength of being part of an international learning network is to accumulate data much more quickly and conduct research that will be crucial for changing public systems. “By being part of this network,” Perry said, “Mount Saint Vincent is part of a learning organization that’s transforming policy in countries all over the world.”

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