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The Harman Center for Child & Family Wellbeing Featured in MD News

30 May 2018


Originally featured in MD News

By: Thomas Crocker

With the opening of the Harman Center for Child & Family Wellbeing, more early intervention and treatment services are now available to vulnerable, underserved children and families in the heart of the Twin Cities.

For years, a key goal of St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development team was to extend its reach from the main campus in Minnetonka to reach children and families from across the metro area. In 2016, just such an opportunity arose when Westminster Presbyterian Church approached St. David’s Center about establishing a clinic as part of its expansion on Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis. Partnering with the church to create the Harman Center for Child & Family Wellbeing was a natural fit.

“Social justice and equal opportunity are at the heart of Westminster Presbyterian Church’s vision for our community,” says Julie Sjordal, CEO of St. David’s Center. “At St. David’s Center, we’ve long known that the community is best served when organizations partner and bring together resources to meet needs. Our partnership with the church has allowed us to create a multidisciplinary center for young children and families — the Harman Center for Child & Family Wellbeing. There, our goal is to intervene as early as possible to help children get on track developmentally, strengthen parent-child relationships — which are crucial to children’s long-term development — and help children prepare to be successful in school and life.”

Located at the corner of 12th and Marquette avenues in Minneapolis, the Harman Center opened its doors in March with plans to serve more than 250 children and families in its first year. Visitors to the center find an inviting space designed to put children and families, especially those who have experienced trauma or adversity, at ease. The Harman Center is home to five treatment programs, each of which plays an important role in strengthening families and, by extension, communities.

A Fitting Tribute

The Harman Center for Child & Family Wellbeing is dedicated to longtime St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development social worker Scott Harman, who passed away unexpectedly in June 2016. Harman was a trailblazer in the infant and early childhood mental health fields at both the University of Minnesota and St. David’s Center. During his career, which included 24 years at St. David’s Center, Harman helped shape the practice of early childhood mental health care in the Twin Cities and touched the lives of countless children and families.

“Scott always used to say what an asset St. David’s Center was because of its mix of developmental services that could meet children and families’ needs,” says Julie Sjordal, CEO of St. David’s Center. “Being able to provide that unique blend of services in a new center named for him is a wonderful tribute.”

At St. David’s Center, we’ve long known that the community is best served when organizations partner and bring together resources to meet needs.
Julie Sjordal, CEO

Parent–Child Program

Strong parent-child relationships are the cornerstones of healthy, vibrant communities, and they are also building blocks of individual behavioral, cognitive and physical development. The Parent–Child Program strengthens the bonds between parents and children who are coping with stress or trauma.

“Our program is for parents with children from birth to age 5 who could use support with meeting their children’s needs, picking up on cues and nurturing their development,” says Kate Rickord, MA, LP, Director of the Parent–Child Program at St. David’s Center. “These children often exhibit developmental delays as well.”

A variety of stressors can strain the parent-child relationship, including substance use, mental health conditions, domestic violence, unemployment, homelessness and food insecurity. For some adults, traumatic experiences from childhood can impair their ability to connect with or delight in their own children.

Parent–Child Program assistance begins with an assessment of the parent-child relationship by a Harman Center staff member. The provider then works with the family to create a treatment plan based on shared goals. During twice- or once-weekly sessions at the center, or in their homes, the parent and child participate in activities designed to reinforce their attachment.

“If, for example, we’re working with a 2-year-old and her mother, we counsel the parent on how to follow her daughter’s lead during play and show her how to pick up on what the child’s play behavior is saying,” Rickord says. “When we see the child come back to the parent for reassurance, we provide praise and reinforcement when the parent acknowledges that need. It’s like when a child runs to the slide on a playground and stops to look back at her mother for reassurance. If the parent smiles, that lets the child know it’s OK to proceed.”

If parents struggle to reassure or console their children, Rickord and her team work with them to understand why. The team measures success by child development and the strength of the parent-child attachment. By the end of the program, children should recognize that their parents can provide the nurturing they need, and parents should feel more confident doing so.

For young children in foster care, St. David’s Center Parent–Child Program clinicians work to support the development of an attachment relationship between caregivers and children. In doing so, children’s development of an “attachment model” is supported.

Pediatric Rehabilitative Therapies

At the Harman Center’s Pediatric Therapy Clinic, a team of occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists supports children who experience developmental delays related to a variety of conditions, as a result of autism or relational trauma, as well as those who struggle with specific areas of development absent a diagnosis. A key area of focus for these professionals is strengthening children’s executive functioning, which influences skills such as attention, planning and self-monitoring and is often affected by trauma, according to Cara Benoit, MA, CCC-SLP, Senior Director of Pediatric Therapies at St. David’s Center.

During twice-weekly sessions, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists work with children to develop skills in several areas, depending on their needs, including:

  • Cognition
  • Emotional regulation
  • Fluency, voice and resonance
  • Language
  • Motor coordination
  • Receptive and expressive language
  • Sensory processing
  • Social communication skills
  • Speech sound production
  • Feeding therapy for infants and older children

“Our therapists help children develop skills through purposeful play routines,” Benoit says. “We write treatment plans that work across developmental domains. An example of this is how we approach working with children on turn taking, which can be a difficult skill for them to learn. Each of our professionals helps children develop this skill in a different way. An occupational therapist might focus on controlling emotions and impulsivity, whereas a mental health therapist might help children maintain connections with individuals. Speech therapists might work on training children to watch others’ cues.”

The pediatric therapies team works with children and families to set short-term goals and reviews patients’ progress every 90 days. Benoit stresses that a strong relationship between parent and child is the essential ingredient for success.

“Success is not so much about children reaching a specific skill,” she says. “Sometimes, parents are so invested in what is supposed to happen developmentally that they’re not able to pick up on the little shifts that are the building blocks for bigger developmental outcomes over time. We want parents to learn to partner with their children in a meaningful relationship so they can achieve the next step.”

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East African Autism Day Treatment Program

In Minneapolis, 1 in 32 Somali children ages 7–9 is on the autism spectrum, according to the University of Minnesota. That figure is more than twice the national rate for school-age children. In 2013, St. David’s Center established the East African Autism Day Treatment Program in northeast Minneapolis to help children and families — many of whom lack basic understanding of autism and mental health — overcome the developmental and interpersonal challenges autism poses. The program now has a new, more accessible home at the Harman Center.

Children in the program attend day treatment five days a week for half-day sessions focused on improving social communication and emotional regulation, as well as the ability to handle unfamiliar, structured settings such as day care. Play-based therapy takes place in groups or one-on-one with staff members, more than half of whom are from the East African community. Parents are welcome to watch sessions behind observation windows.

“We prepare children to be successful in less-intensive environments, such as day care, school or the home,” says Vanessa Slivken, MA, LMFT, Senior Director of Autism Services at St. David’s Center. “Family involvement is crucial. In addition to the 20 hours of programming children receive at the Harman Center, one of our practitioners visits families in the home during the week or on the weekend to help them apply what they’ve learned in real-life scenarios.”

If, for example, a mother cannot take her son to the grocery store because he throws things off of shelves, a program staff member can accompany them to the store and help the mother understand what is going on — perhaps help the mother recognize nonverbal communication from the child that she might be missing.

On average, children who successfully discharge from the East African Autism Day Treatment Program achieve 80 percent of their goals.

“The reception to our program by the East African community has been excellent,” Slivken says. “Families whose children complete the program see improvement in their relationships with siblings and performance in preschool or school. Parents feel less stressed, more satisfied with their relationships with their children and more confident in their parenting.”

Children’s Mental Health and Family Place Mental Health Day Treatment Program

These closely related services help children and families who struggle with debilitating mental health conditions, as well as developmental issues that affect emotional wellness, find behavioral and functional equilibrium.

“Children’s Mental Health services are appropriate for children and families when the challenges they face do not resolve or impair functioning and relationships within families and in children’s environments, such as day care or preschool,” says Stephanie B. Combey, MSW, LICSW, Senior Director of Children’s Mental Health at St. David’s Center. “Early intervention and treatment are important in reducing the long-term impact of mental health issues on children and families. Research tells us that by intervening early, we affect the trajectories of children and reduce the likelihood of school failure and involvement in the criminal justice system, and we increase their chances of emotional wellbeing.”

Children’s Mental Health services begin with a diagnostic assessment interview with children and family members to learn about their concerns, history and goals for treatment. The assessment process also includes mental health screenings. Individual and family psychotherapy are available at the Harman Center. Therapists use play and other interventions to create a comfortable environment in which children and families can find healthier ways to respond to the adversity and stress they face.

Children for whom behavioral health issues hamper their ability to function around peers in structured settings may benefit from participation in the Family Place Mental Health Day Treatment Program. Established more than 30 years ago at St. David’s Center’s main campus, the program teaches children effective ways to manage interactions with their peers and helps families support them.

“Our staff is highly trained in working with preschool-age children and families who struggle with self-regulation and relationships, some of whom may have experienced trauma,” Combey says. “We walk alongside families as they work to heal and support their children in healthy development.”

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