Front desk of the children's advocacy services of greater St. Louis

The Children’s Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis has received approximately $1 million annually for the next five years from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Child Traumatic Stress Network to fund two projects. Project ASSIST will serve trainers of trauma-informed treatment models, and Project CONTACT is designed to help increase treatment opportunities for children who’ve experienced a traumatic event. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The University of Missouri–St. Louis has been a regional leader in the child advocacy field for years with the Children’s Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis, a child advocacy studies certificate program, and the recently approved Bachelor of Arts in Applied Psychology of Child Advocacy Studies.

Thanks to funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Child Traumatic Stress Network, UMSL will be able to build upon that strong foundation and expand its services.

In July, Jerry Dunn, executive director of the CASGSL, and Joel Epstein, research director at the CASGSL, each received grant funding from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Across their two projects, they have secured approximately $1 million annually for the next five years to operate Project ASSIST (Access, Skills and Support for Implementation Science in Trauma-informed Training) and Project CONTACT (Community Operations Network for Treatment After Childhood Trauma). A Training Service Adaptation Center award funded ASSIST, while a Community Treatment and Service award funded CONTACT.

“It is incredibly exciting but also very, very humbling,” Dunn said. “To have been selected for both types of these grants is unusual and a real testament to this team’s work and what they’ve been able to co accomplish.”

Epstein concurred.

“The team that we have – the pre-existing team – is just phenomenal, and I think it’s a recognition of the great work that they do,” he said. “I’m really happy that we have this opportunity.”

Project ASSIST will serve trainers of trauma-informed treatment models. Typically, individuals are chosen to be trainers of various trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapies because they’re good clinicians. However, Dunn said many trainers haven’t been educated in the principles of adult learning, engagement, implementation of science strategies or virtual learning.

“About half of the project is focused on those trainers and pulling together a curriculum, almost like a training intensive, where trainers can go and get some pretty intensive fundamentals,” Dunn said. “Then we help them apply that to the specific model that they’re going to go out and train.”

CASGSL will be partnering with UMSL’s Center for Teaching and Learning to develop learning cohorts and to equip trainers with best-practice guidelines and training materials.

Additionally, CASGSL will create a suite of problem-based learning simulations that will be available online.

“We’re going to build what we call a simulation studio,” Dunn said. “We’ll be able to assist other folks in writing and packaging simulations that will be open education resources for either students or teams or child-serving professionals.”

The project will also focus on building communities of practice, particularly supporting trainers of color with a mentoring program and access to peer support for training and evaluation efforts.

Project CONTACT is designed to help increase treatment opportunities for children who’ve experienced a traumatic event.

When there is a disclosure of sexual or physical abuse, child protection authorities and law enforcement are notified and CASGSL conducts a forensic interview. In such cases, children always have access to child and family traumatic stress intervention (CFTSI). It’s a brief, but very effective, therapy model that consists of five to seven sessions.

“It’s designed to get kids into treatment soon after they’ve experienced or witnessed a significant trauma like abuse or neglect or been a witness to violence,” Epstein said. “The idea is to get them into treatment so rapidly that they never have the chance to develop posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Unfortunately, Dunn noted that there are many children that experience traumatic events that don’t come through that particular channel. Dunn and Epstein said the project is dedicated to shoring up other referral sources, such as children who’ve witnessed a violent crime or children who’ve experienced a traumatic bereavement or assault in a school setting.

“This project, ideally, is going to make the CFTSI program top of mind for folks in the community who deal with kids who’ve experienced trauma,” Epstein said. “We’ve partnered with St. Louis Public Schools, the St. Louis Police Department and the child-family courts system.

“The idea is that we will form this network of folks who all start embracing the idea of this program, and whenever they recognize that a kid could benefit from our services, they will refer them to us.”

The funding will support the hiring of two family engagement specialists, as well. The specialists will serve as a touch point for families as they make the transition from referral into treatment. Not only will this help families who might be overwhelmed with the process, it will also help therapists focus on treatment rather than case management.

Dunn and Epstein are excited to expand the services of CASGSL moving forward. Dunn anticipates that students will have even more networking and practicum opportunities due to the ASSIST and CONTACT projects.

She’s also hopeful that virtual access to the problem-based learning simulations will bring trauma-informed training to rural areas in Missouri where there are shortages of behavioral health clinicians.

As for the local community, both Dunn and Epstein believe an increased focus on access to CFTSI therapy will strengthen the safety net for some of the most vulnerable people in the St. Louis.

“The real key that I hope folks understand is that this is building on the good work that our agency already is doing,” Epstein said. “It’s an opportunity for us to expand what we do to hopefully reach out to folks who haven’t had the chance to get treatment. I think it’s a recognition by SAMHSA of the great teams that we have in place already.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe