Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs


News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

July 12, 2006

Experts unite to examine childhood trauma, education

DeKalb — It’s no surprise that many children in foster care experience unthinkable trauma, carry that emotional pain to school and quickly fall far behind in their studies.

What might come as a surprise, though, is that the many professionals devoted to helping these children are often on different pages speaking different languages.

A June 14 symposium on trauma, stress and education sponsored by Northern Illinois University’s Center for Child Welfare and Education, in partnership with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, aimed to bring all sides together.

Ultimately, the participants want to achieve improved educational outcomes for children who have been traumatized with a special emphasis on those most-vulnerable children – those in the foster care system.

“Together we can change the lot of children who desperately need a better world,” NIU President John Peters, who was the convener, told the group at the day’s beginning as he encouraged their collaboration. “Most of the great discoveries are on the cusps of disciplines.”

“All the experts attending have responsibilities to the children, yet no responsibilities for the accountabilities in each other’s systems,” said Sharon Freagon, director of the NIU Center for Child Welfare and Education. “Furthermore, the different professions represented here have information that all of the professions could benefit from. The symposium and its outcomes are a beginning of this dialogue.”

Participants included NIU’s president, the director and staff members from DCFS, staff members of the Illinois State Board of Education, university professors, school superintendents, neurobiologists, clinical psychologists, attorneys and even a judge.

Others represented the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services, the Child Trauma Academy of Houston, the Allendale Association, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Massachusetts Advocates for Children, the MILL of Rockford and the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

The morning began with four questions:

  • What do you know about how trauma and stress affect the education of foster children?
  • What do you need to know?
  • How can we work together to improve the educational outcomes of foster children who experience(d) trauma and stress?
  • What two short-term and two long-term research questions would you like to see the medical community, in concert with the educational and other related professions, address regarding assessments and interventions leading to positive educational outcomes of foster children who experience(d) trauma and stress?

By day’s end, after hours of brainstorming and some debate, the 31 participants had created a long list of areas and began prioritizing areas they could tackle.

They want to teach foster parents about trauma. They want to mold a comprehensive child-development curriculum that integrates the unique needs of foster care children to use in Illinois schools and teacher-preparation programs.

They want to develop a research agenda on trauma and education – and they want the voices of children who have been traumatized to drive it.

Bryan Samuels, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, told the group he liked what he had heard. Samuels and four others from his department came in search of “intersections” among the professionals, he said.

“Today was extremely useful in helping us to see where the intersections are,” Samuels said. “Our instinct here is that we’re going to take this information, re-organize it, take a step back and figure out how we can get at these issues. I see a lot of potential here on paper.”

Illinois’ current foster care population numbers about 17,860, the smallest group since 1993 and merely a third of its size in 1997. A focus on “permanency” – moving children into adoptions and guardianships – accounts for the sharp reduction in cases.

Yet, Samuels said, there are “unintended consequences.”

Transferring children out of the system means fewer opportunities for child development services, he said, while it intensifies their adverse childhood experiences and fails to anticipate their needs for a smooth transition into adulthood.

On the other hand, he said, the small population provides “a unique opportunity to redesign the system” by focusing on age-specific well-being and making an investment in positive lifetime outcomes.

A large number of children in the system are affected by trauma (mostly neglect, followed by family violence, grief and physical harm), the incidence of which climb as the children grow older. Sexual abuse accounts for less than 5 percent of the cases.

Several neuroscientists at the symposium noted that trauma causes chemical and physical changes in the brain that lead to what uniformed observers see as “acting out.”

“We’ve been working on changing the system but we’ve been thinking about these issues on parallel tracks,” Samuels said. “There are no limits to how far we’ll go to figure this out.”

Next steps include developing research questions – DCFS spends $5 million to $6 million annually on research, Samuels said – and development of a Web site that contains helpful insights on trauma and education, tips for teachers on practical intervention and organizational information.

Of equal importance is the development of a common language and frame of reference among the different professions of trauma.

“Stay involved. Keep the conversation going. This is no one institution’s issue,” Peters told the group. “The end product is so important. It extends beyond foster care kids into a better understanding of early childhood trauma.”

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