The Cuyahoga County Defending Childhood Initiative

Jill Smialek and Dr. Jeff Kretschmar discuss the Cuyahoga
County Defending Childhood Initative
, which  seeks to address violence against children in one
of the country’s most violent areas – Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Their
unique approach includes the creation of an
 integrated, county-wide screening, assessment, and service system for children ages
0-18 who have experienced violence and trauma. The initative is part of the Department of Justice’s Defending Childhood Demonstration
, which funded eight sites across the country to  respond to the
problem of children’s exposure to violence. 
he Center for Court Innovation has produced a report on the Cuyahoga County Defending Childhood Initative,
a series of reports on five other sites, and 
report that condenses
lessons learned across the sites. 

following is a transcript

I’m Avni Majithia-SejpaL, senior writer at the Center for Court Innovation. Welcome to another episode of our
New Thinking Podcast. Today, we’re here to talk about the Cuyahoga County Defending Childhood Initiative. Cuyahoga
County, in Ohio, which includes the Cleveland Metropolitan Area, was one of eight sites across the country to be
funded by the Department of Justice to address and raise awareness about children’s exposure to violence. We,
at the Center for Court Innovation, have just released our process evaluation on six of those sites, which includes
individual reports on each site and a report that condenses lessons learned across them. Today, from Cuyahoga County,
we’re talking to Jill Smialek, manager of the Family Justice Center and of the Witness Victim’s Service
Center, and to Dr. Jeff Kretschmar, research assistant professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences
at Case Western Reserve University, and senior research developer at the Gun Center for Violence Prevention, Research,
and Education. Jill and Jeff, welcome to our podcast.

Thanks, Avni.

JILL SMIALEK: Thank you.

I want to start by talking about violence. I understand that the county, and Cleveland in particular, has one of
the highest violent crime rates in the country. What kinds of violence are kids exposed to?

You’re right that the kids in Cuyahoga County witness and experience pretty high rates of violence. The kinds
of violence they’re experiencing or witnessing are similar to other kids in other communities. We have a lot
of kids saying that they are hit and attacked. They witness a lot of shootings. There’s lots of verbal abuse,
physical abuse. Our kids report high rates of bullying. I will say that of the kids who have been in our Defending
Childhood system and who have been assessed for violence exposure, 96% of those kids report at least one past year
victimization and 87% report as least two past year victimizations. Those numbers are really, really high.

SMIALEK: We also know that a lot of children who are coming through the Defending
Childhood system have witnessed domestic violence in their homes. From our most recent report, it looks like about
50% of our cases are kids who are dealing with domestic violence in the home.

The Defending Childhood initiative created a streamlined county-wide screening assessment and service system up to
the age of eighteen who have exhibited symptoms of exposure to violence or trauma. Can you walk us through that process?

SMIALEK: When we were first starting the Defending Childhood initiative, we
wanted to make sure that we were implementing something that was not a new program, not a standalone program, but
rather something that was embedded within the very robust social service menu, or environment that we have here in
Cuyahoga County. We made the determination that we would work with our agencies and organizations that were already
serving a large proportion of kids who were exposed to violence but at the same time, not necessarily focusing on
that as the number one issue. We determined that we would work with our Children and Family Services, Juvenile Court,
and a number of our community based mental health service providers. We worked with Jeff and others to develop a
screening tool. We used that screening tool in those existing agencies. They screen very quickly for trauma symptoms
and trauma behaviors. Then, once they reach a specific threshold, they move on to a central intake and assessment
agency where they receive a full blown, roughly four-hour mental health assessment.

From there,
the mental health professional makes the determination as to any diagnoses that may apply and also makes a decision
as to an appropriate therapeutic intervention. From there, the child is referred into services.

Jeff, do you want to talk about the tool that you developed?

Sure. Very early on in the process, when we were first awarded the grant, one of the things that we quickly discovered
that while there was some screening going on for violence exposure and trauma in our child-serving systems, it wasn’t
consistent, it wasn’t uniform, and a lot of times, when kids were screened, nothing happened as a result of
those scores or that information. They knew that kids were exposed but they didn’t really have much unique services
to put these kids into. What we thought was it would be really beneficial if our entire system used the same screening
tool and had some training on how to use it. Then, that tool, the results of the information from that tool, could
then be used to refer children to fuller assessments and then if necessary, into trauma-focused CBT or other trauma
informed services designed specifically for cases like this.

We first thought to use an existing
tool that would look at trauma and violence exposure but confine any that were really short and free and that would
span kids from zero to eighteen. We created our own. We came up with two screeners. One’s for the younger kids,
zero to seven. One is for the older kids, eight and older. We ask them or their caregiver about what kind of violence
they’ve seen and what trauma symptoms are also co-occurring at that time. If kids score a certain level in that
screener, they are referred in for a fuller assessment, to really get a handle on what they’re experiencing
and if that’s had some mental health consequences for them.

The worker who’s administering
the screening, regardless of the score on the screener, can also decide to refer that child for additional assessment
if they feel like they need it.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I understand that
research was integral to the initiative from the very beginning of the planning process. How did you and your colleagues
go about this research? What were some of your insights?

The most important thing we learned in the beginning was that there was just a lack of uniform screening for childhood
exposure to violence and trauma. We put a lot of effort into the development of the screener. We took information
from existing screeners, took data that we had collected previously on thousands and thousands of kids who have been
exposed to violence and trauma, and identified the questions that we could ask that best predicted how kids would
answer a much longer assessment. We were able to create these very short screeners. There are about fifteen questions,
they take on average four, five minutes, and essentially what we’re finding out is that these screeners are
really good at predicting who really has seen a lot of violence, who is experiencing trauma associated with that
violence. I think we’re probably close, at this point, to twenty thousand kids who have been screened since
July of 2012.

A lot of our research effort has focused on understanding what the kids in our community
were seeing and experiencing, figuring out how best to measure that in a consistent and uniform way, and then understanding
after the screening what needs to happen. What does a full assessment need to look like? What are the best treatments
for these kids? These kids, as you said, we’re talking about zero to eighteen. What might work in terms of a
therapy for an eight year old might not be appropriate for a seventeen year old.

That leads me to another question. Given that you address the needs of children and teenagers in such a wide age
range, zero through eighteen, how did you adapt your methods to different age groups, and specifically to the youngest

SMIALEK: I think in addition to the screening methods that
we use, we made sure when we were selecting the various evidence-based treatment modalities, that we were encompassing
some or selecting some that were appropriate for younger children. One of those that we selected was PCIT, the Parent-Child
Interactive Therapy, which we know is especially effective for younger children, and we also are able to use trauma-focused
cognitive behavioral therapy for younger children.

We also recognize that this is a really tough
area. It’s hard to find an appropriate way to intervene with children who are so young, because of the age that
they’re in in development. Here in Cuyahoga County, in addition to Defending Childhood, we have a number of
social service agencies and initiatives at the large scale level that deal with child well-being. One of those is
an initiative that’s dedicated to early childhood mental health. We do have the ability to refer into one of
the early childhood mental health services, which are separate and apart from Defending Childhood but again, I think
it kind of illustrates how we have fit Defending Childhood into the existing system and the existing infrastructure
that we have in Cuyahoga County so that if we come across a child who we can’t fit into PCIT or TFCBT, we know
that we have this additional referral source that we can tap into.

How did you adapt and make use of evidence-based and promising practice into–

we worked a lot with a number of community based partners who have far more expertise than I do and that anybody
in my office has. When we were planning for the Defending Childhood initiative, there was a sub-committee that was
put together to specifically look at various services or various trauma modalities that would be appropriate for
Defending Childhood. We tapped into their brain power, their experience, their expertise, in order to come up with
some options that really made sense. We reviewed a number of different programs. We looked at not just therapies,
but also some community based group interventions, like the Families and Schools Together program, to make sure that
we were making smart decisions that would lead to good outcomes for us.

In terms of the tools, we did a lot of work in establishing the screeners. Then, in the assessment process, we’re
using validated assessments, using validated and previously used questionnaires like the Child Behavior Checklist,
the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children, to make sure we’re really measuring what we need to measure to best
be able to then refer kids into the appropriate services for them.

In addition to providing direct services, you also focused on creating an infrastructure that would span the entire
county. Can you talk a little bit about that?

SMIALEK: What we wanted
to do was ensure that whatever we started was first of all, taken to scale, because as you said earlier, we have
a lot of crime in Cuyahoga County, and particularly in the city of Cleveland. I think that we are very well aware
of the number of kids who are exposed to violence. We want to be able to make a difference for as many of those children
as possible. If we’re going to take it to scale given the resources that we have, we knew that we had to work
with what’s already in place. It just made sense, as we were thinking through how to make the biggest impact
with the amount of resources that we had, how exactly would we do that. The answer to that was to build on top of
what we already have so that we can sustain it long term and make the biggest difference possible.

What are some of the lessons for other counties that want to make changes on the level of infrastructure?

SMIALEK: I think there are several that kind Cuyahoga County can bring to the
table. The first is just to make sure that you take your time and do a thoughtful and thorough planning process.
I think that starts with doing a full environmental scan of the groups that are already in the neighborhood or in
the county or in the community, both groups who are interested in this issue, and who have the desire to be at the
table, and bringing them in and making sure that they have a relevant and meaningful role to play while they’re
engaged with the process.

I also think probably one of the most important lessons that we learned
here locally is that planning takes time and over time, things change. You have to make a promise to one another
that you will be flexible because the plan you write today, you may need to implement it a little differently tomorrow
when you’re finally ready to implement.

else that we knew but was confirmed is that while you can have service providers and county employees and research
folks at the table, we’re talking about a program for and about kids. You need to have the involvement of the
kids. You need to understand what they’re experiencing, what their comfort level is with what we’re planning.
If you don’t have it, we can have a really, really great plan but if it’s not something that kids and families
are comfortable with, then it’s not going to work. Having that level of consumer involvement in the planning
process is really important. Also important is from day one, planning for sustainability of whatever it is you want
to implement, so thinking out a year or two years or three years ahead and say, “How are we going to make this
sustainable?” Which goes back to an earlier question around why we also focused on system issues in our project
is because if we can change the system, that’s a sustainable change. It doesn’t necessarily cost anything
to change the system like we’ve started to change it, but it can be really lasting.

That’s really interesting. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.


MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I’m Avni Majithia-Sejpal, from the Center
for Court Innovation and I’ve been speaking to Jill Smialek and Dr. Jeff Kretschmar about The Cuyahoga County
Defending Childhood Initiative. To read our report on the initiative, as well as our multi-site report, you can visit
our website at Thanks very much for listening.