This month the Safe Start Center is honoring National Women’s History Month by profiling women who have made an impact on the issue of children’s exposure to violence.
Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D., L.P. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. Her primary interests are in trauma, resilience, and promoting children’s healthy development with two distinct but interrelated research foci: the impact of exposure to traumatic stressors on parenting and child functioning, and the development, testing, and widespread implementation of family-based interventions.
She is Principal Investigator on a National Institute of Drug Abuse-funded randomized controlled trial to develop and test a web-enhanced parenting program for National Guard families with parents returning from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Gewirtz also directs Ambit Network, a SAMHSA/National Child Traumatic Stress Network Community Services and Treatment center focusing on the implementation of evidence-based interventions for traumatized school-aged children and their parents.
Why do you feel children’s exposure to violence and traumatic stress is an important issue and how did you get involved?
We now have a really good body of knowledge to show how damaging exposure to violence can be – to all aspects of children’s development, including emotional and behavioral adjustment, and relationships with others. But much less was known 20 years ago, when I was in graduate school. It’s thanks to not just burgeoning research, but also a spike in public awareness about children’s exposure to violence that we know and can do far more to prevent and ameliorate the impact of violence on kids, and their families.
What would you say are a few of the most valuable things you have learned through your work with ADAPT and the Ambit Network?
I keep being reminded how resilient kids are, and how much parents want to help their children through difficult transitions like the military deployment of a parent. I have learned how remarkably committed and hard-working military parents are, and how parents are so motivated to get parenting tools that can be used effectively to help promote kids’ healthy adjustment. Our early findings from our ADAPT military families study indicate that families benefit from simple parenting tools, and that these tools not only help parenting, but also improve parents’ own capacities to regulate emotions.
I also have learned that practitioners are thirsty to learn and implement empirically-supported therapy practices and tools for kids exposed to violence. It is amazing to hear testimonials from therapists, and from families, about how evidence-based trauma therapies have helped them – sometimes after several wrong turns in therapy. The work is pretty humbling, too. It takes a lot of time and resources to train people to deliver research-based practices with fidelity (i.e. to a quality standard). We were proud of our accomplishments in training over 200 Minnesota therapists to deliver evidence-based trauma treatment over the past few years. But, we realized that this number represents not even 2% of licensed mental health professionals in the state! We won’t be out of work any time soon!
I also have learned that when research, practice, and policy are in sync, important changes can be made to benefit vulnerable children and families. Nationally, although it has taken a while to recognize the profound toll of military deployment to war on children and families, we have seen the emergence of several strong initiatives to support military children and families. Locally, Minnesota has become very strong in the implementation of empirically supported mental health interventions.
Lastly, I have learned that you can never truly accomplish things by working alone. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with a slew of amazingly committed community partners. I and my team at the University conduct research, provide training and technical assistance, and teach. Our research participants give plenty of themselves to advance knowledge about children and families. And our community partners take the findings and bring them into the ‘real world’ everyday, in their work. Work that is accomplished in true partnerships has a longevity that far outpaces anything that an individual does alone.
What would you like to see develop in research, policy and/or communities regarding children’s exposure to violence and traumatic stress?
I think we have reached a stage where sufficient knowledge is ‘out there’ that we can really push the issue into the public limelight. Recall the big public education campaigns on smoking, and wearing seat belts, and how effective they were. Violence is another major public health risk. The time to do a big public awareness campaign to prevent children’s exposure to violence is now!
I’d also like to see more initiatives of the sort that started in the late 90s (like Safe Start, and the Green Book initiative) – those that cut across silos to address children’s exposure to violence. We are never going to fully address the problem unless we bring all stakeholders into the picture – justice, mental health, law enforcement, medical and public health, domestic violence, child welfare, education, social services, etc – to coordinate responses so that no child is invisible following exposure to violence.