Teach Your Children Well

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Although funding for the Family Community Center eventually ran out, the daycare stayed open, and in 1999, it changed its name and moved to Lakewood, where the coalition was building apartments for low-income families, some of whom used to be homeless. "We convinced them that we were providing a valuable service, so they agreed to give us this land," says Cathy Danuser, the center's family-services coordinator. The Renaissance Children's Center is now available to kids living in the coalition-owned apartments, as well as those in the surrounding neighborhood.

Many of the approximately 98 children who are enrolled at the center, at 1797 Kendall Street, have either witnessed domestic violence or been abused themselves, Danuser says. A lot of the kids, who range in age from six weeks to twelve years, have never known stability -- they've either moved frequently, been homeless, or both. At least half have emotional problems, and about 10 percent have severe mental health problems.

That's why therapists from the Mental Health Association of Colorado (MHA) Pro Bono Mental Health Program have been working with kids at the daycare since it opened, trying to teach them empathy and conflict resolution. The MHA is a nonprofit organization that refers mentally ill people to various agencies for treatment, tries to influence mental health legislation and pairs therapists with homeless shelters, community centers, schools and safehouses.

Julie Underhill Butscher, who directs the program for the MHA, says that providing mental health services in daycare centers makes sense because it's a familiar environment for kids. "We want to make getting therapy easy," she says. "When you're working with kids who already feel safe in their child-care setting, they're more willing to talk to adults. All parents have to do is sign a release saying it's okay for their kids to see the therapist at the center. They don't have to worry about transportation or about pulling their child out for treatment.

"For most people, if they have an excuse not to get therapy, they don't," she adds. "We often find that parents have some of the same mental health issues as their children. If someone had worked with that parent, their kids might not have developed the same problems."

For the last two years, Ann Prosser, a licensed child, adolescent and adult psychologist in private practice, has been spending about eight hours a week at the Renaissance Children's Center, where she provides group and individual therapy for children and helps parents learn how to handle their kids' behavioral problems.

Prosser, who is assisted by a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Denver, gives kids tips on what to do when they're angry or frustrated: Rather than hit another child or destroy property, she tells them to take deep breaths, to spend time alone or to do something they enjoy to get their mind off their anger. Prosser has also given parents tips on how to stop their kids from bullying and has held classes in which she's taught kids -- some of whom have been sexually abused -- the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching.

"The more we can serve kids at an early age, the more likely we are to stop the cycle of abuse. If kids can learn empathy for others and learn ways to express anger, they may not react so violently later," she says.

Prosser also teaches teachers how to manage children with behavioral problems -- something that could be very helpful to an industry that already has serious difficulties retaining employees.

Mental health professionals, educators and politicians are now beginning to realize that the MHA's approach -- providing services for children in daycare, where behavioral problems first appear -- could be a way to help prevent kids from growing into a life of unemployment, psychiatric hospitalization, homelessness or crime.

There is already evidence that many juveniles who commit crimes have a history of mental illness; a 1997 Colorado Department of Youth Corrections study, for instance, found that 24 percent of juveniles in detention in this state have severe to extreme mental health problems and that 65 percent suffer from moderate mental health problems.

The state government, as a result, has become increasingly focused on early intervention. For the last four years, the legislature has funded two pilot programs, one in Denver and one in Boulder, that, like the MHA's pro bono service, pair therapists with daycare centers. In January, the Colorado Department of Human Services awarded grants to fund eight similar programs. In the future, the department would like to see therapists working with all 7,000 daycare providers in Colorado.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon