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.