11/21/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Helping Kevin Recover From Trauma

It's well known that trauma can have a lasting effect on children, especially when it happens in the earliest years.

Young kids who witness or experience violence, sexual abuse, neglect, or other trauma can suffer depression and are more prone to emotional and physical outbursts. In the past, they were often labelled as either tragic victims (if they were very young) or problem kids (if they were older and became threatening).

Neither label is particularly helpful for finding a way forward. When a child is blamed as a "bad kid," they are more likely to be punished, receive school suspensions, or even face prison time. On the opposite side, those who blame a child's environment may feel sympathetic but fail to offer solutions to protect the child and community.

The good news is that a promising approach called Trauma Systems Therapy is offering these kids and those who care for them hope.

Take the case of one Children's Law Center client, a 7-year-old I'll call Kevin. He had the misfortune of having really bad things happen to him at a very young age. Kevin's mom grew up in foster care and then wrestled with drug addiction. When she had Kevin, she struggled to take care of him. As a result, he ended up in foster care himself when he was about 2. His early environment clearly took a toll: Kevin had speech delays, had trouble sleeping, and would often hit other kids.

Once he entered foster care, Kevin made progress in his speech but continued to struggle with his emotions. He bounced from one foster family to another, not finding a permanent home.

Sometimes, the best part of my work is seeing how resilient kids are, even when faced with enormous setbacks. Much of this resiliency is formed early on, when a child develops literally billions of brain cells and neural connections during the first three years of life. But brain science teaches us that ongoing trauma in early years can interrupt the brain's development -- and that's what happened to Kevin. Over time, his exposure to traumatic events simply overwhelmed his brain's ability to cope.

When Kevin was three, he was finally placed with a foster family committed to caring for him. Despite their love and dedication, he had increasingly violent episodes. By the time he started elementary school, he was regularly running away, punching adults, and threatening to harm himself and others. We worked with the foster family and with D.C.'s child services agency to get Kevin therapy and special education services. It didn't seem to help. After a time, the family realized that they couldn't keep him safe.

In the past, there would be few options left for kids like Kevin. He would have continued to bounce from one foster setting to another without much chance of getting better. Not only would he never have the love and stability of a family, but he would likely spend much of his life in jail.

That's where Trauma Systems Therapy (TST) comes in.

Trauma Systems Therapy recognizes that traumatized kids who act out aren't just "bad kids." Instead, their behavior is being triggered by events that seem insignificant to the rest of us, but remind the child of the severe trauma they experienced. A child whose father beat him for spilling his juice, for example, might punch a peer who teases him for being clumsy.

TST uses brain science to pinpoint what is triggering the unhealthy behavior and eventually helps these kids gain control of their emotions. It also helps caregivers recognize what is triggering the outbursts. The process involves parents, teachers, social workers, and the child -- and is most often provided while they live at home. The goal is to give everyone the right skills to help the child transcend trauma, while maintaining a stable home setting.

Fortunately for kids in D.C., our Child and Family Services Agency has recently adopted the Trauma Systems Therapy model and is now training its frontline staff to recognize the warning signs of child trauma and intervene as necessary. This puts them at the forefront of other child services agencies across the country.

Because Kevin's behavior was so out of control, he couldn't stay safely at home. So, we worked with the District government to find a place that could help him stabilize. Kevin is now in a nationally recognized center that provides intensive services to children who suffer from extreme trauma. He still has some scary times, but he is making progress. He is also now well enough to be in a classroom for most of the school day -- a critical milestone.

It's a promising beginning, and leaves me with hope for Kevin's future. I'm also encouraged that D.C.'s new commitment to Trauma Systems Therapy will mean other young children will have the chance at an even earlier intervention.

And, over time, the policy debate can move beyond the unhelpful argument between treating troubled children as victims or bad actors -- and focus on solutions that work.