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Keys to overcoming poverty: identifying complex trauma, building resiliency, experts say


Wheeling-based Crittenton Services began as a residential service for women, especially pregnant women, throughout the state.  Today it’s grown to serve women and families with behavioral challenges in a variety of ways. Recent research has been shedding new light on patterns of poverty and possible methods of breaking those cycles.

“What’s really happening to us today? Why do kids have these behaviors? Why are we managing such poverty issues? It would be so simple to say that if we gave everybody an education, if everybody had food in their bellies and a roof over their head, that would end poverty," says Kathy Szafan, CEO, Crittenton Services Inc.

Szafran says, it’s not that simple.

Crittenton Services Inc. has been managing the side effects of poverty in West Virginia for over a century—dealing largely today with girls displaying behavioral problems.  She says together with the National Crittenton Foundation, they’ve amassed certain insights about human psychology that could hold keys to breaking patterns of abuse and poverty—two things which, as it turns out, go hand and hand.

In fact, according to a recent study, identifying trauma is maybe the first step toward breaking cycles of poverty.

“You can take any of these girls and without dealing with their trauma, you can get them in school—doubt if they’ll stay in—you can get them in a house—sure they’re going to struggle—and the odds of them reliving that cycle of abuse would be very good.”

What is trauma? What does it look like? What usually springs to mind are severe scenarios like rape, physical abuse, loss of a parent. These are, unfortunately, common experiences that can take a long term toll of an individual but, as Tracee Chambers  explains, even more common and equally harmful are small abuses that build up from very early ages. Chambers is the clinical intake specialist for the residential program at Crittenton. She says she trains staff to recognize behavioral symptoms that can come from what’s called complex trauma.

“Our kids that we serve have experienced from the time that they were little, mom and dad were using and not responsive when they cried, or mom and dad didn’t bother to feed them regularly, so from the period of infancy when you’re learning how to trust the world and that you can have your needs met based on your cues, they don’t feel like they have any control and they don’t have trust that their caregivers can meet their needs.”

Chambers says the trauma compounds as a child grows and develops.

“As they start to develop into toddlers and they start to try to explore environment and stuff like that, parents either restrict their movement and throw them in a crib for the day so that they don’t get to explore and learn, or they’re very punitive and negative when they get into things, or they’re exposed to this chronic chaos.”

Chambers says this chronic developmental trauma from intermittent love and neglect can create individuals who find it difficult to build trust, or feel helpless or hopeless to have an impact on what goes on around them. She says that a variety of behavioral problems are typical.

“It’s hard to get a kid in to a school to learn their ABCs when they’re not sure what’s going to go down tonight or they’re remembering what happened last night, or if they haven’t eaten in a couple days,” Chambers says.

Crittenton CEO Kathy Szafran refers to some of the girls who then, eventually land in Crittenton’s residential program. She says without learning how to cope, the infant, turned toddler, turned adolescent is likely unable to rise out of the impoverished circumstances in which they live.

“She got pregnant because it was something she could choose to do,” Szafran says. “And there will be someone to love her. And it may be her way out because this guy is promising her the world. So when you see that WV’s [teen] pregnancy rates are increasing, it is not increasing because we don’t have enough condoms. It’s increasing because of the situation of these children regarding poverty and abuse.”

The programs at Crittenton aim to allay behavioral symptoms by instilling healthy alternatives that teach someone how to self-regulate so that they can rise above the chaos. Protective factors are used to that end—things like having a daily routine and good nutrition, to teaching what a healthy relationship looks like and what unhealthy habits like addiction and abuse look like.

“Our kids don’t realize that they’ve been abused until they’ve had a couple classes and then they go, ‘Well yeah, that happened to me.’”

Chambers says they also teach teenage moms how to connect with their babies: positioning, eye contact, how to use real words and a positive tone of voice—reciprocal nonverbal contact that builds trust and a positive connection.  She says these basic skills are fundamental. They build resiliency in the mother and in the child.

“The more connected and attached they become to their child, the more likely they are to protect them from people who would harm them and the more likely they are to work hard to get them what they need.”

And that, she says, can break the cycle of abuse. A resilient, happy child, she says, can overcome obstacles and find her way out of poverty. Or at least, she’s more likely to.