Risking Connection stresses relationship building


OTTUMWA — American Home Finding Association is celebrating its implementation of a system that will build relationships with and repair the brain functions of traumatized children.

“Kids who have been highly traumatized act differently,” said Tracy Boxx-Vass, AHFA executive director. Studies show that parts of the brain that are active in other children are inactive or less active in traumatized children, she said. “We’re trying to rebuild that, rebuild those pieces of their brains.”

A reception for organizations and community members at Hotel Ottumwa today marks the end of training and the beginning of implementation of Risking Connection, an approach to behavior modification that moves organizations toward trauma-responsive care and relationships.

Risking Connection is a flagship of Sidran Institute, an international, nonprofit organization that specializes in designing responses to traumatized individuals and families in state mental health systems, jails, urban neighborhoods and faith communities.

AHFA has a 15-bed youth emergency shelter and an eight-bed comprehensive foster group care facility in Agency which offer Crisis Intervention, Stabilization and Reunification services under contract to the Iowa Department of Human Services, said Program Director Judy Davidson..

“The State asked that we come up with an evidence-based model,” Davidson said; Risking Connection is such a model.

State contracts make demands but offer no funding, said Boxx-Vass. Risking Connections cost AHFA $40,000. Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation fully funded the program.

“Public Health started talking about child trauma years ago,” said Boxx-Vass. “This was not new stuff for our agency.” Risking Connection formalized the kind of interactions the staff already had with clients. “We knew we were on the right track, but now we have the science behind it,” Boxx-Vass said.

There’s a paradigm shift in the way children in the child welfare system are cared for, said Mark Morris, training supervisor. “Kids used to be punished. Now the child is nurtured.”

Recently some girls ran away from the shelter, said Morris. When they returned, they were given an assignment. “We’re not punishing them for what they did,” Morris said. “Instead they have to write a paper on human trafficking.”

The girls will learn the dangers that face them because of their behavior, and that shows that the staff cares about them. The new approach is about changing a child’s life “through relationships rather than punishment,” Morris said.

“This is definitely about relationships,” said Boxx-Vass, something children in the child welfare system have lacked.

“The trauma you’re experiencing as a child affects your outlook on life,” Boxx-Vass said. “There are things we can do … to reverse the impact.”

Risking Connection is about nurturing the child, not using punitive methods but building relationships, Morris said.

The program also focuses on vicarious trauma. Hearing the stories of physical and sexual violence experienced by these children can have a traumatic effect on the caregivers, Morris said. “Compassion fatigue” is a common term for the effect.

“It’s a very traumatic profession,” said Morris. With Risking Connection, the staff not only builds relationships with the children but with each other, lessening the traumatic stress.

“It’s all about relationship and how relationship heals,” Boxx-Vass said.

Reporter Winona Whitaker can be contacted at and followed on Twitter @courierwinona.


Risking Connection Training in Honolulu, Hawaii

Ready to dip your toe in the water of Trauma-Informed Care? 

Already in the water but feeling unmoored? In over your head?

Need an excuse visit to Hawaii in March?

Join us in Honolulu for a 16-Hour Basic Risking Connection® Training, open to individual support and service workers in all disciplines. Risking Connection® teaches a relational framework and skills for working in any capacity with survivors of traumatic experiences. The focus is on relationship as healing, and on self-care for service providers.

Provided by our licensed Training Partner, EPower and Associates as a Pre-conference workshop at Institute on Violence Abuse and Trauma’s annual Hawaii Summit.

Honolulu Convention Center

Monday March 27- Tues March 28, 2017

8 AM-12PM and 1PM-5PM each day

Fees: $220 Early Registration-before Feb.5

$240  Feb 6-Mar 19

$260 after March 19 and Onsite

Please direct questions about RC and about the Hawaii Workshop to Elizabeth Power at

PTSD Research: Distinct Gene Activity Patterns from Childhood Abuse

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | April 30, 2013

Abuse during childhood is different.

A study of adult civilians with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) has shown that individuals with a history of childhood abuse have distinct, profound changes in gene activity patterns, compared to adults with PTSD but without a history of child abuse.

A team of researchers from Atlanta and Munich probed blood samples from 169 participants in the Grady Trauma Project, a study of more than 5000 Atlanta residents with high levels of exposure to violence, physical and sexual abuse and with high risk for civilian PTSD.

Cast Your Vote for a Global Initiative Addressing Child Abuse and Neglect

Dear friends and colleagues,

Please view our two-minute video and cast your vote in support of a
grant application to Grand Challenges Canada. The project is “I-CAN:
International approach to Child Abuse and Neglect – a mobile phone
application.” This is a global collaboration involving ISTSS and its
affiliated organizations, including the Traumatic Stress Section of
the Canadian Psychological Association. This project aims to help
survivors of child abuse and neglect around the world.

To go directly to our video, follow the link below.

Shooting Disaster Resources

Disaster Distress Helpline

Handout for survivors from the National Center for PTSD

Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting

Managing your distress in the aftermath of a shooting

Five Questions on the Tucson, Ariz., Shootings for Psychologist Joel Dvoskin, PhD
**please see # 3 question and response

Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event

Helpful Hints for School Emergency Management: 
Psychological First Aid (PFA) for Students and Teachers: Listen, Protect, Connect – Model & Teach

Listen, Protect, Connect – Model and Teach
Psychological First Aid for Teacher and Students

After a Loved One Dies – how children grieve and how parents and other adults can support them

School Crisis Guide: Help and Healing in a Time of Crisis

The 12 Core Concepts: Concepts for Understanding Traumatic Stress Responses in Children and Families

PTSD genes identified by UCLA study

Published: Monday, April 2, 2012 – 12:33 in Health & Medicine

Why do some persons succumb to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while others who suffered the same ordeal do not? A new UCLA study sheds light on the answer. UCLA scientists have linked two genes involved in serotonin production to a higher risk of developing PTSD. Published in the April 3 online edition of the Journal of Affective Disorders, the findings suggest that susceptibility to PTSD is inherited, pointing to new ways of screening for and treating the disorder.

“People can develop post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving a life-threatening ordeal like war, rape or a natural disaster,” explained lead author Dr. Armen Goenjian, a research professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “If confirmed, our findings could eventually lead to new ways to screen people at risk for PTSD and target specific medicines for preventing and treating the disorder.”

PTSD can arise following child abuse, terrorist attacks, sexual or physical assault, major accidents, natural disasters or exposure to war or combat. Symptoms include flashbacks, feeling emotionally numb or hyper-alert to danger, and avoiding situations that remind one of the original trauma.

Goenjian and his colleagues extracted the DNA of 200 adults from several generations of 12 extended families who suffered PTSD symptoms after surviving the devastating 1988 earthquake in Armenia.

In studying the families’ genes, the researchers found that persons who possessed specific variants of two genes were more likely to develop PTSD symptoms. Called TPH1 and TPH2, these genes control the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood, sleep and alertness — all of which are disrupted in PTSD.

“We suspect that the gene variants produce less serotonin, predisposing these family members to PTSD after exposure to violence or disaster,” said Goenjian. “Our next step will be to try and replicate the findings in a larger, more heterogeneous population.”

Affecting about 7 percent of Americans, PTSD has become a pressing health issue for a large percentage of war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The UCLA team’s discovery could be used to help screen persons who may be at risk for developing PTSD.

“A diagnostic tool based upon TPH1 and TPH2 could enable military leaders to identify soldiers who are at higher risk of developing PTSD, and reassign their combat duties accordingly,” observed Goenjian. “Our findings may also help scientists uncover alternative treatments for the disorder, such as gene therapy or new drugs that regulate the chemicals responsible for PTSD symptoms.”

According to Goenjian, pinpointing genes connected with PTSD symptoms will help neuroscientists classify the disorder based on brain biology instead of clinical observation. Psychiatrists currently rely on a trial and error approach to identify the best medication for controlling an individual patient’s symptoms.

Serotonin is the target of the popular antidepressants known as SSRIs, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, which prolong the effect of serotonin in the brain by slowing its absorption by brain cells. More physicians are prescribing SSRIs to treat psychiatric disease beyond depression, including PTSD and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Goenjian’s coauthors included Julia Bailey, Alan Steinberg, Uma Dandekar and Dr. Ernest Noble of UCLA; and David Walling and Devon Schmidt of the Collaborative Neuroscience Network. No external grants supported the study.

Source: University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Health Sciences

Understanding New Research and Treatment: Helping Children and Teens With Anxiety Disorders and Depression

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America is hosting an educational program that we think would be of great interest to parents. If you’d like to distribute flyers, please let us know the amount. Please share this information with anyone you think may be interested. Thank you.

If you have any questions, please contact Kate Mewhiney at or 240-485-1018.

Understanding New Research: Helping Children and Teens With Anxiety Disorders and Depression
April 12

10:00 am – 12:00 pm

Crystal Gateway Marriott
Arlington, Virginia

$25 for adults (children under 18 free)

Experts will discuss new research that advances our understanding of the brain and anxiety disorders and depression in children.

Find out what’s new in treatment: cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), medications, and combination treatments.
Learn strategies to help with your child’s anxiety.
Take home tips and resources.
Ask the experts your questions.

Find out more details on our website or call 240-485-1030 for more information.

Kate Mewhiney
Communications Marketing Coordinator
Anxiety Disorders Association of America
(240) 485-1018

Preventing and Reporting Child Abuse: The Questions Raised by the Penn State Scandal | RH Reality Check

Last week, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury indicted former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for sexually abusing eight boys over the course of a 15-year period. The indictment also charged two top university officials with perjury and failure to report what they knew about the allegations.  The indictment has kicked off a firestorm of media attention both in the sports world and the US at large. On November 9th, the Penn State Board of Trustees fired legendary football coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier. Allegedly, a graduate assistant told Paterno that he observed Sandusky abusing one of the boys. Paterno reported this to Athletic Director Tim Curley although did not follow up later on the matter or alert legal authorities himself. The indictment stated that President Spanier was made aware of the incident reported to Paterno as well.

In any particular abuse situation there is an abuser, a victim, and (almost always) bystanders. This is true in bullying, street violence, as well as child sexual abuse. One of the most important questions that the Penn State situation, and cases like it, raise is — what is it about the nature of intimate sexual violence that stops so many bystanders from taking action when they either have direct information that abuse has occurred or, more commonly, just an inkling that something might not be right.

It is true that men like Mr. Sandusky can often be well-regarded, upstanding citizens, involved in the community, even loved as a role-model by many.  However, it is ALSO true, as has come out in the press, that numerous people had direct knowledge of, and even directly witnessed, Mr. Sandusky sexually abusing boys. Despite this knowledge, they were passive bystanders, not active ones. If any one of these adults took appropriate action to report this to the proper legal authorities, maybe the abuse would have ended with one or two boys rather than eight. Maybe the victims would have been given help and protection.

While some adults in this situation had direct knowledge of the abuse, I’m guessing there are likely many others who had troubling gut feelings about Mr. Sandusky –family, neighbors, players, coaches, etc.  Many such people are now wracking their brains about what signs they might have missed, why didn’t they trust their gut, and, most importantly, what prevented them from coming forward. These are good and important questions. Even Joe Paterno, whose Penn State football team proudly extolled a reputation for being “squeaky clean” and whose motto was “success with honor,” could not see clear to act on his moral responsibility to protect current and future victims.  It is especially disturbing that those with direct knowledge could not muster the resolve to actively speak out.

However, for all of us, there is this critical question — WHAT prevents us from speaking out, not ignoring what we see, paying attention to these gut feelings, checking them out, talking with a friend or colleague about them, and ultimately taking action to alert the proper authorities?

I think there are complicated answers to this question.

Much of it relates to our societal denial about the reality of child sexual abuse.  We SO want sex abuse to be about the creepy pervert, the stranger who abducts and molests our kids. Let’s just put them all on sex offender registries, attach GPS devices to their ankles and we’ll be okay. We DON’T want to admit that 90 percent of sex abuse is committed by people known by the victim and the family – our brothers, uncles, fathers, stepdads, and…yes…coaches.

If we do speak up, we are intruding on the privacy of the hallowed family –whether it be a family unit or the Penn State family.  Sometimes, we don’t know what signs to pay attention to in these men. Even if we do, we don’t want to get involved: “I told my supervisor. If they don’t act, it must not be that big a deal. Anyway, if anything happens, it’s on them, not me.”

We especially don’t want to get involved when there are powerful people and institutions involved. When those institutions have “squeaky clean” images to uphold, we don’t want to be responsible for tarnishing that image. If we do raise our concerns, we risk social rejection. We also need to have some comfort with our feelings related to the shrouded area of sexuality and the language of sex to get involved and speak up. If we speak up (as an adult bystander or a victim), it is HIGHLY likely that things will get worse in the short term although hopefully better in the long term.

Many people, playing Monday morning quarterback, are outraged about the fact that bystanders didn’t speak up (and we should be outraged by this case), but this does NOT recognize the reality of the barriers listed above. Until we grapple as a society with these many barriers, we will make limited progress on prevention.

Child sexual abuse prevention, led by organizations such as Stop It Now!, seeks to answer exactly these questions  – how do we help adult bystanders recognize the signs of sexual abuse, talk with others about what they are seeing, and find the courage and words to speak up. Unlike Penn State, most often it is a wife speaking up about (or to) her husband whom she sees repeatedly coming out of their daughters’ bedroom in the middle of the night; a neighbor speaking up about (or to) a beloved neighbor who frequently has boys coming in and out of his house; an adult niece speaking up about (or to) a great uncle who always wants to play video games in the basement alone with a 10 year-old relative.

This is not an easy subject to raise when the abuser is the primary earner for the family; when he is well-loved, even by the son or daughter he is abusing; when he is the founder of organizations for vulnerable kids which do a lot of good; when speaking up means a crisis will ensue.

To prevent sexual abuse, we must ALL struggle with these questions. Perhaps the Penn State situation will move us a little closer to speaking up as ACTIVE  bystanders, not passive ones, looking out for the well-being of our children and those who cannot speak for themselves.

Steve Brown, Psy.D.

On Nights Like This, for Survivors

On Nights Like This is an anthology of comics by survivors of sexual abuse, domestic violence, assault, or related trauma. Our goal is to create a volume of high-quality art and writing and in the process, help to give survivors a voice. We also hope this book will be a source of comfort to others, serving as a reminder that they’re not alone.

We are accepting submissions in the form of fully realized comics, or as written pieces to be illustrated by one of our artists.

Contact: or call 647-400-7287

“How will you talk about it?” Rape and Sexual Violence Awareness Video Contest at


The short documentary film, “I am a survivor of rape,” shares four women’s stories with powerfully engaging results:

•      An educational resource for advocacy groups like you
•      Winner of a national journalism award
•      Featured on CNN
•      Inspired the creation of a nonprofit called, Tabu

Tabu gives a voice to social justice by enlisting the talents of youth, seeking to address neglected issues and deconstructing what society considers taboo.

Rape is our first topic and I’m excited to announce an opportunity for young people to make a huge social impact. (Not to mention we’re awarding $1,500 in grants and will feature winners on an educational DVD!)
We launched our website last week along with the video contest. Applicants are asked to produce a visual project (10 minutes or less) that would demonstrate the urgent need for rape and sexual violence awareness. You can find more details on our website: