TRAVERSE CITY — Two decades ago, Lisa Lederer and her husband came to a meeting at Child and Family Services and heard the story of children who show up at the agency’s door with a brown bag stuffed with everything they owned.
They were so moved, they adopted two brothers, ages four and five, who already had been in three foster care homes. The older boy was so severely neglected, he was nearly impossible to understand, she said.
"Nobody talked to him early on, so he didn't learn how to talk, how to form his words," Lederer said.
The help Lederer and her sons received from the agency's therapists motivated her to "give back" and return to college for a master’s degree in social work.
Now she serves as the behavioral health supervisor for Child and Family Services, which its officials said made great strides in their treatment approach, thanks, in part, to an evidence-based program for children suffering from trauma.
“There’s been a lot of research published about brain chemistry and how trauma affects children and how it affects their brains,” Lederer said. “Those articles have been published and new practices developed. That’s what we’re on getting board with.”
Child and Family Services was chosen as a training site for Michigan State University social work master's students. Beginning in September, interns will work with the agency's two therapists in Traverse City and Harbor Springs who are nearing certification in evidenced-based trauma treatment.
Lederer said nearly all of the 300 children served annually by the agency’s foster care program each year are traumatized in some way. The agency's revenues fall short of what they need, and Child and Family Services is making a fundraising appeal this week with its "brown bag" campaign.
“Every child that’s been removed from a home deserves to have therapy and support and someone to talk to,” she said. “When they're first put into foster care, they can be in survival mode, which is more in the stem part of the brain. It’s a reactionary place, hyper-vigilant, always scanning their environment.”
A therapist can help children recognize signs of slipping into a highly emotional state, such as sweating or feeling hot. They are taught how to calm down with relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing. After that they can clearly think about and express what’s upsetting them, she said.
Most kids can overcome their difficulties with the help of a therapist and a loving, structured environment. Foster parents often attend therapy and learn to stay calm during bad behavior and show the child there is nothing they can’t help them through, Lederer said.
“If you can do that for a child, they can overcome it," she said. "They can learn to trust and love somebody. It’s hard, and it’s long, and it’s a process.”
As part of the MSU program, therapists at Child and Family Services consult weekly with experts about specific questions that come up in therapy sessions, Lederer said.
“Just having that connection to these experts is pretty awesome and really valuable for the kids we serve,” she said.