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KidsPeace CEO Speaks Out - Mental Health Funding for Children

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A version of this article was published in The Morning Call as a guest column on February 16, 2011.


W.IsemannWilliam Isemann, President and CEO of KidsPeace


The tragic shooting in Arizona last month should be a wake-up call for us all because it could have been prevented. It was alarming to learn that gunman Jared Loughner exhibited behavior indicative of mental health issues for several years, but had never received the help he needed.


Alarming, but not surprising, in light of the fact that funding for mental health services has been drastically reduced over the same time period.


Young people, who should be hospitalized or in residential treatment facilities, are being referred to an overloaded outpatient system or, like Loughner, expelled from school because they are seen as threats to the student body and faculties. Without treatment, the issues troubling these kids worsen, escalating into the type of tragedies we witnessed in Arizona and more recently, in California, where a school shooting resulted in the death of a school administrator.


As President and CEO of KidsPeace, a Lehigh Valley, PA-headquartered nonprofit that provides mental health care to children, teens and young adults, I have witnessed dramatic transformations.  I’ve seen children who were literally “saved” by well-trained medical staff and clinicians applying tailored treatment plans of counseling, medication, education and hard work. The complexity of needs we see today is unprecedented and often demands that we intervene quickly to provide care -- wherever they are needed to save a child.


Budget reductions by federal, state and local entities, as well as reduced insurance payments, have had an enormous impact on services for children. Fewer and fewer emotionally and mentally impaired children are receiving the identification, diagnosis and treatment they need. There is little funding available for outpatient treatment, and much less for hospital or residential care that would help children heal and become productive members of our communities.


Schools must also take a more proactive role in identifying students with mental health issues, ensuring that they are referred to counselors, physicians, psychologists, social workers or clinicians for the help they need.  If parents refuse or are unable to recognize signs of illness in their children, our schools need to inform the proper social services, medical or law enforcement authorities that a child is spiraling out-of-control and possibly toward a violent act.

Prevention is key.  We are calling on all public and private schools to adopt a “Threat Assessment System” which outlines symptoms, available help and procedures if any incident takes place.

Dr. Peter Langman, KidsPeace psychologist and author of the book,

“Why Kids Kill:  Inside the Minds of School Shooters,” recommends schools implement a plan based on Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence published by Cornell and Sheras.


Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is standing firm in his commitment not to increase taxes for our residents.  He and his new Cabinet are currently reviewing state expenditures to determine where reductions should be made. Adding our voice to the other 130 agencies throughout the state that provide services to support tens of thousands of at-risk children and families, KidsPeace is urging our new governor to maintain revenue for Children and Youth services at the current level. A total of 59% of KidsPeace funding comes through the state.  Those reductions would have a very significant negative impact on hundreds of children who depend on KidsPeace and other providers to serve, heal and help children grow.


Removing money today from mental health care budgets will only cost more in the long run – both in financial and human costs. There is a strong linkage between mental health disorders and juvenile justice behaviors.  Research shows that approximately 70% of children already involved with the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and approximately 25% of children have a mental health disorder so severe it interferes with their ability to function. 


The system failed a young man in Arizona and he unleashed terror on his innocent victims. Other young people out there deal with similar demons.  Are we willing to allow the system to fail them as well?  Some act out by bullying, torturing animals or terrorizing their families.  Others bring guns to school football games, search the web for plans to build bombs or attempt suicide. They are unable to deal with their anxiety, depression or other emotional or mental problems without treatment from professionals.


As a society, as a nation, as a community – we must hear their cries and make a firm commitment to provide the hope, help and healing they so desperately need.

KidsPeace Introduces New Art Therapy Program in PA Residential

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KidsPeace Introduces New Art Therapy Program in PA Residential

By John Muraco, Art Therapist


At the Inventor Center on the Orchard Hills campus in Orefield, PA, art therapy is a fairly recent addition to an already dynamic expressive and recreational therapeutic program. If you ask an art therapist, “What is art therapy?” you are sure to receive a different response from every individual. Some views on this creative therapeutic modality have been shaped by the vision of the art healing process that offers individuals a way to self-understanding, behavioral change and emotional reparation[1]. This vision, coupled with specific therapeutic goals and clinical understanding, can guide a therapist in presenting a client with a way to process emotions, explore his or her life story and build self-esteem.


KidsPeace has provided the expressive team with an opportunity to develop ways of fostering creative growth, emotional awareness and self-expression. As an art therapist, my intention has been to provide our teens with a safe therapeutic space that allows them a degree of free and healthy exploration of their adolescent impulses. Such a space provides clients with a platform for choice making: It gives them the time necessary to gain some mastery of a chosen medium, and encourages the use of images to express emotions that cannot be communicated in words. The sessions even allow them the freedom to sit silently and rebel. As an art therapist working within the residential milieu, I have grown increasingly aware of the importance of striking a balance between the developmental teenage need for freedom and a respect for the structures and boundaries. In the search for approaches that encourage this balance, I began to incorporate the use of photography in art therapy sessions.


In her very useful book[2] Judy Weiser explores the use of photography in therapy. She specifies that clients who utilize phototherapy techniques do not need to be camera-savvy and that personal exploration and discovery are welcome while using this medium. A client can use photography as a stepping-stone for creative expression, insight and emotional communication, thus promoting personal emotional communication as central and to encourage it in every way.


To accomplish a photography exercise, I dug up three digital cameras at home that I had received from friends and brought them into a session. Working in groups of three, the girls spent the first session getting used to their cameras at their own pace and with freedom of choice: They were able to take as many or as few pictures as they wanted. The theme for the second session was “Relationships.” The girls were asked to first think of a relationship they have with another person, positive or negative and then to take pictures of subject matter that represented them and the other individual. They were allowed to explore their outdoor environment, making certain that they were within my visual field but still able to walk a distance ahead of the pack if they wished. They marveled at their surroundings and focused in on details in nature.


A number of them used the camera and pictures to process major events in their lives. Client M wrote a letter to her friend who had died and then buried the letter (that contained what she wished she could have expressed to this person) in a ceremony that she photographed. She was able to use the photography sessions as a way to “say goodbye” to her friend who passed away during M’s stay at KidsPeace. Another client, S, took pictures of the clouds, sky and sunlight that prompted her to start a conversation with her about death and loss. S was also able to write down some of her feelings about this process in a piece she titled “Heaven.” She wrote: “In photography, I have learned ways of expressing my feelings in photos, I’ve learned what some meanings to things are and I’ve learned that some things in nature can relate to others relationships.” Through their images, these teens are confronting deep emotional truths that will help them move forward. The process of taking photographs and the physical evidence of their accomplishments, build self-esteem.


Photography is the first digital medium these teens have explored in art therapy, and their emotional responses to it have been important (strong and rewarding). I look forward to watching our expressive team grow and bearing witness to the emotional communication of the boys and girls at KidsPeace.


[1] Malchiodi, 2006

[2] Phototherapy Techniques, 1993

The Sanctuary Model at KidsPeace

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The Sanctuary Model at KidsPeace

By Leslie Ten Broeck, LCSW, KidsPeace Sanctuary Coordinator



KidsPeace is totally committed to implementing the Sanctuary Model at all levels of care, with implementation beginning in residential programs in Pennsylvania. Sanctuary is a model of trauma-informed care and organizational change that is important to the care and treatment of all clients. The Core Team for Sanctuary at KidsPeace numbers 37 members and includes seven subcommittees (called “Action Groups”), which address different aspects of Sanctuary at KidsPeace.


The Sanctuary Institute in New York has developed a certification process, which includes a published list of standards that need to be met in order to be certified. KidsPeace is working toward SI certification in 2012. The certification process is lengthy and culminates in representatives from the Sanctuary Institute spending several days at our site reviewing records and practices, observing the daily functioning of all departments of the organization and interviewing staff, administration and clients.


What is the Sanctuary Model?

Sanctuary represents a trauma-informed method for changing an organizational culture in order to provide an ideal therapeutic environment for everyone who is a part of that environment. This model reflects the understanding that trauma can be experienced by all members of an organization, staff and clients, and that the agency as a whole is dynamic and can be negatively impacted by experiences within the organization. Thus, Sanctuary seeks to create a culture of physical, psychological, social and moral safety for all who are part of the organization.


The Aims of Sanctuary:

       Increased perceived sense of community through the creation of a nonviolent environment

       Increased degree of “social immunity” to the spread of violence

       Increased capacity for “social learning”

       Increased democratic decision-making and shared responsibility in problem-solving and conflict resolution

       Ability to deal with complexity

       Opportunity for all clients and staff to experience a truly safe and connected community

       Opportunity for troubled clients to have corrective emotional, relational and environmental experiences

       Reduced episodes of violence including verbal, physical and sexual forms of harassment, bullying and violence on part of staff and clients

       Reduced critical incidents

       Improved job satisfaction

       Reduced staff turnover

       Improved client satisfaction

       The promotion of collective recovery, healing and growth.


The goals of Sanctuary are to guide an organization in the development of a trauma-sensitive culture with seven dominant characteristics, all of which serve goals related to trauma resolution and model good relational and parenting skills.  These are known as the Seven Commitments:


o      Commitment to Nonviolence: to understand what different forms of violence do to children and adults


o      Commitment to Emotional Intelligence: to promote an increase in emotional self-awareness


o      Commitment to Social Learning: to promote a therapeutic teaching and learning environment where we learn from past experience


o      Commitment to Shared Governance: to develop a community of shared decision-making and discussion


o      Commitment to Open Communication: to be courageous enough to speak openly, honestly and respectfully, in order to resolve problems in a supportive manner


o      Commitment to Social Responsibility: to develop a therapeutic community of justice, fair play and responsibility


o      Commitment to Growth and Change: to help develop a community of creativity, imagination and hope for a better future.

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