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Putting the Children First: Services in county evolve with the times

Lifesteps' Count Room preschool teacher Julie Cupps on the right helps guide students as they paint some boxes that will be turned into train cars for their Polar Express event on Dec. 20. Steve Cukovich/Butler Eagle

When it comes to the area of human services, Brandon Savochka has — as he puts it — “been around the block.”

Director of Butler County Human Services, Savochka has been with the county for 11 years and worked in the nonprofit sector for 20 years prior to that. So he’s had a firsthand look at how the needs of county residents have changed over a three-decade time span.

And when it comes to the needs of the county’s children, Savochka has seen a growing demand, particularly when it comes to mental health services.

“But the nice thing,” he said recently, “is that in Butler County, we have a wide array of mental health services available to children and their families. Those needs are being met, but we’re seeing a huge increase in those needs.”

Savochka said service providers are continuously working to strengthen the countywide service network, and often it’s just a matter of connecting people in need to the proper provider.

Those services are being provided in a variety of ways and places — clinics, schools and in the home as well. Virtually every school district in the county now has mental health outpatient services available to students, an effort that was stepped up over the last couple of years.

Savochka said bringing mental health services to area schools has eliminated some service barriers that might have existed. For example, a parent’s work schedule or lack of transportation could have made it difficult for a child to receive mental health services at a conventional clinic. Or a child’s extracurricular activities might have gotten in the way.

“Now they don’t have to miss out, and they can still get the treatment where they’re at,” Savochka said. “It has provided a good opportunity to get those needs met.”

Steven Green, chief executive officer at Glade Run Lutheran Services, a nonprofit entity that meets some of those needs, said school-based programs are the fastest-growing of Glade Run’s service lines. And while he appreciates the fact that such programs can remove some barriers to service, school-based services often don’t involve the family as a whole.

“Family is the No. 1 domain and driver related to personal wellness,” Green said. “So you miss that in a school-based program. But at least the children are getting something.”

Green said some of the needs today’s children have are similar to those that have existed during his 30 or so years in the social services arena, but the types of services offered through the county have evolved.

Mental health needs

“What I’ve seen, probably in the last 10 years, is that mental health services are more utilized and more accessible than what existed in the past,” he said. “At least in Butler County, there’s more collaboration, partnership and communication than there ever has been. In large part, that’s due to having a human service concept and all kinds of collaboration boards across the county.”

While some of the needs children experience today might be similar to those of past generations, Green said he has noticed that children today seem to be experiencing more anxiety and more attention-deficit related issues. The reasons, he said, are open to debate.

“It’s a faster-paced lifestyle we live today,” he said. “With all the technology, everything is so fast and so accessible. Children never get a break. When we were kids or teens, we didn’t have Instagram, we didn’t have cellphones or ways to communicate with people in seconds. You controlled when you wanted to have social interaction.”

In the old days, Green said, you might go to the mall and see your friends.

“Now, when you open your phone, you have notifications from 15 people reaching out, people saying things that you’re not prepared for,” he said. “And it’s all too much. The same thing can be said for adults, but we would hope that adults are more emotionally evolved to deal with that better.”

All that stress and anxiety that children feel can lead to depression.

“And now you have bigger problems,” Green said.

Even the economy can play a factor in children’s mental health issues.

“When you’re talking about increased children’s needs, you’re talking about increased family needs,” Savochka said. “We’re seeing stressors in the housing market and dealing with people struggling to find affordable housing. When you have that stress of whether you have a roof over your head, you’re going to see some things exhibited in children and youth we’re serving because they’re dealing with stressful things at home.”

Residual effects of COVID

Others have seen an uptick in the need for mental health services for the county’s youth, and among the other factors at play is COVID-19. While the height of the pandemic has long since passed, residual impacts continue to be felt.

“I hate to bring (COVID-19) up, but we’re still dealing with the fallout,” Savochka said. “And the reality is, it has created some different needs in the community with regard to serving kids and their families.”

Lisa Schiller, executive director of MHY Family Services, refers to those impacts as “ripples” from COVID.

Schiller said MHY has seen significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety across all of its program areas. The pandemic and its resultant isolation for parents and children, when added to existing life stressors and other complicating events, proved to be problematic. Plus, children were not attending school for lengthy periods of time, which reduced opportunities they had to interact with peers and others out in the world.

“As we talk with school district leaders, they’re really seeing vast behavioral differences with kids in our younger grades,” she said. “Kids never went to the grocery store or out to restaurants; they didn’t have those building blocks of experience, and they were isolated in terms of their exposure to other 3- to 6-year-olds.”

Added to that were direct COVID impacts — illness or even death to family members. Not only were children directly affected in that way, but their parents were, too. And that ultimately filters down to the child, Schiller said.

“As the family went through adverse experiences, it became overwhelming to many,” she said. “When each of us is feeling our worst, are we feeling like our best parents? No.”

Those life stressors and other issues might have caused some parents to change their behaviors and self-medicate, and that often alters the dynamics between parents and between and among parents and their children. “It’s all ripple effects as to how we relate to one another,” Schiller said.

MHY is a behavioral health and educational organization that provides in-school, in-community and in-home mental health treatment for children and families in several counties, including Butler. MHY also operates Longmore Academy, a private academic school that serves at-risk students from 30 school districts in grades one through 12. Students might be there as a result of a disciplinary infraction or they are contending with social and/or emotional issues that get in the way of their ability to learn, Schiller said.

MHY’s goal is to eventually enable the student to return to their home-school, although sometimes families will advocate to keep their child in the MHY program because of the progress the child is making, both in terms of academics and just forming relationships with staff or with fellow students.

“They might be experiencing peer-to-peer friendship for maybe the first time,” Schiller said.

One of MHY’s most successful approaches to helping children in need is referred to multisystemic therapy, a family-intensive in-home approach that includes a psychiatric nurse practitioner or master’s-level therapist, crisis caseworker and family members.

The approach has helped mitigate significant mental health issues — severe depression, suicidal thoughts and gestures or anxiety, for example — that otherwise might have resulted in children needing psychiatric hospitalization or long-term care outside the home, Schiller said. The care providers can also offer psychiatric treatment for other family members, if needed.

Schiller said families generally receive services for about 14 hours per week over five to six months, based on the standard multisystemic therapy model.

“We look at what the family’s strengths and issues are, and we work on solutions to those issues,” Schiller said. “It’s really very individualized according to the family’s needs. Some services have most of the time spent with the child, but with the multisystemic therapy program, it really is about time with the whole family system to make a change. And that makes it different.”

Literally dozens of entities provide services to children in the county, and Julie Thumma, a resource development specialist with Lifesteps, has as good a handle on those entities as anyone. Thumma serves as coordinator of the Butler County Early Care and Education Council, a group that includes public and private schools, preschool and child care programs, among others.

Thumma said many of them report seeing similar issues among children in the areas of behavior and communication. The council meets six times per year to talk about common needs, implement training and share resources to address those needs.

“We work together to look at all of the needs of children in the county and try to create solutions,” she said.

Lifesteps, an independent nonprofit entity that has been around for 100 years, serves people of all ages, including children. Karen Sue Owens, president and CEO, agreed with Schiller that the COVID pandemic could be partly to blame to some of the issues that children are battling today.

“We’re seeing an increase in developmental delays, some of which could be attributed to impacts of the pandemic on their developmental experiences,” she said, adding that many children missed wellness visits with their pediatricians and had fewer opportunities to socialize with other children and get out into the community.

Those missing pieces manifest themselves in several ways — what Owens referred to as social/emotional challenges and self-regulation challenges along with an increase in speech delays. An increase in screen time might also be exacerbating the situation, she said, resulting in children not having as much social interaction and not seeing speech modeled from other people.

“We work to try to help children address those concerns by having more interaction and helping them learn social regulation, self-help skills and peer interaction,” she said.

Self-regulation, Owens said, refers to being able to control yourself in a social setting. “So sharing is self-regulation,” she said. “Taking turns is self-regulation. Transitioning from one activity to another is self-regulation. Being able to deal with boredom is self-regulation. A lack of self-regulation results in increased behavior concerns — a lack of impulse control or a lack of the ability to manage wait time.

“Children who lack that capacity, they don’t understand what it means to take turns, what it means to have back-and-forth. They might engage in parallel play where they are playing beside a child but not with another child. We have staff who help support that engagement between children or with adults in the classroom. It does result in needing more hands on deck, more adults engaging to help facilitate that back-and-forth.”

Children ages 3 through 5 gathered Friday, Dec. 15 at Lifesteps' Grover preschool classroom to paint some boxes that will be turned into train cars for their Polar Express event on Dec. 20. Steve Cukovich/Butler Eagle
Excessive screen time

Two other entities involved in meeting the needs of children are the YMCA and Early Learning Connections. Sandra Ihlenfeld, executive director of the Butler YMCA, said it’s her impression that youth of all ages are spending more time than they should in front of one screen or another.

“It’s a socialization issue,” she said. “They just don’t play with each other as well, and they don’t play alone well. They lose the ability to make believe because everything is high-tech and fancy. These are some of the things we’re noticing.”

In an attempt to address those issues, there is no screen time during any of the YMCA programs, including its child care program, which serves about 250 children daily in three locations. “We focus on the ability to think, move, do, be creative, play, run — those specific things,” Ihlenfeld said.

At Early Learning Connections, which has been around for 50 years and is the grantee agency for Head Start/Early Head Start programs — among others — in Butler and Armstrong counties, also has seen an increase in behavioral challenges, according to Elisa Spadafora, the nonprofit corporation’s CEO.

Early Learning Connections contracts with Glade Run for support services and also has its own internal programs to meet those challenges. One is a positive behavior intervention and support system, which establishes three specific programwide expectations for all children and adults — be safe, be kind and be respectful.

“We build on that and really look at emphasizing the positive,” Spadafora said. “We have adopted that within our centers and we’ve reached stability through that.”

Spadafora said parents play a key role in their children’s progress through the Early Learning Connections programs. “We highly support and encourage the parents to be as involved as possible in their child’s education, to know what we’re doing here, because it’s extremely important for them,” Spadafora said.

A relative newcomer to the children’s services arena is a nonprofit called Isaiah 117 House, which started in Tennessee but is looking to expand to Butler County. The goal, said Abbey Walsh, a full-time volunteer and expansion coordinator for the county, is to purchase and rehabilitate a three-bedroom house that can be used for children who are removed from their family home and are waiting to be placed in foster care or a kinship home.

Walsh said that wait — or gap — can be as short as a few hours, but it can also stretch to several days. Oftentimes those children have to wait in an office of some type without much in the way of belongings. If Isaiah House is successful in opening its house in the county, children will have a real home to wait in, a place where they can shower and have an actual meal. In addition, those children will receive new clothing and other basic necessities.

“They can enter foster care with a little more dignity,” Walsh said.

Walsh said the hope is that Isaiah House can reduce the amount of trauma children in waiting experience and also help lighten the load for the caseworkers who are helping those children and the foster families that will take them in.

The caseworkers, Walsh said, are “managing the children’s emotional, mental and physical needs all while trying to find them a placement,” she said. “And we want to ease the transition (for the foster families) by providing them with what they need so they can focus on the other needs of the child.”

This story originally appeared in Business Matter.

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