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As awareness of childhood trauma rises, new free therapy program launches for Philly students []


The fire that destroyed her dad’s third-floor apartment is the scariest thing that’s ever happened to 8-year-old Dakota Johnson. It was five-thirty in the morning. Someone on the first floor of the building had fallen asleep smoking. Dakota and her dad, Kenneth Johnson, woke up to the sound of the fire alarm. First it seemed like it might be just a small blaze, but when Johnson opened the door to the apartment, smoke and soot rushed in. Dakota was too scared to crawl out into the hallway, so the two ended up fleeing through a window.

Physically, they were mostly all right, but Dakota’s dad had inhaled some smoke. He’d also lost all of his belongings in the flames. The emotional toll of the experience was another story. Long after the fire was extinguished, Dakota’s fear remained.

She’d always been sensitive, but in the days and weeks afterwards, she began to cry easily. She was afraid to go sleep. She was still a good student — her favorite subject is math, and she carries a backpack emblazoned “#GirlGenius” — but she started leaving class with stomach aches, and making frequent trips to the school counselor.

“I have nightmares about it sometimes,” said Dakota, her voice small, her face buried in her mother’s shoulder as she spoke. “I’m scared and I have” — she turns to mom Sheena Holbrook, whispers to her, “what’s the word?” then turns back — “anxiety!”

Dakota lives in a neighborhood where trauma is common. The 22nd Police District in North Philadelphia has some of the city’s highest rates of both gun violence and poverty. Like Dakota, children who experience that violence and fear may not be able to shake it so easily. Trauma can impact how they learn, triggering the “fight, flight, or freeze” instincts that can make it difficult for children to concentrate and absorb new information. Some studies suggest trauma may alter genetics, and be passed down generation to generation.

Now a new program is trying to break that cycle by offering trauma therapy to children living or attending school in parts of North Philadelphia. Run by the Joseph J. Peters Institute (JJPI), a Philadelphia leader in trauma research and treatment, the program is free to children aged 3 to 18, regardless of parents’ insurance. Philadelphia already has a network of mental health providers offering trauma-informed therapy, but they are only open to Medicaid holders, and none had been based in the 22nd Police District.

That meant Dakota, whose mom has private insurance through her job, wasn’t eligible. Holbrook works in the teenage girl unit of a mental health hospital, so she recognized the signs of trauma in her daughter. She called around looking for help, but found nothing affordable, and nothing in the neighborhood — until Dakota’s school counselor gave her a flier for the new JJPI program. It operates out of a nearby church, close enough that Dakota doesn’t have to leave school early for her weekly appointments.

Natalie Dallard, the project manager at JJPI, said it’s important that the program is neighborhood-based. There are already many barriers to people seeking help, she says, and the neighborhood knew it needed a local resource.

“Residents realized something was affecting them and their children. There was a reason there was so much violence, so much hurt, so many people suffering from mental disorders,” said Dallard. “There’s a lot of people who are walking wounded, all living in this same neighborhood. They recognized, ‘Hey, we need help with this.’”

Over the next two years about 120 children will receive therapy through the program, which is funded by a nearly $200,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. It’s a collaboration with Strawberry Mansion: A Sanctuary for Hope (SMASH), a local group that convened conversations about trauma over the past few years.

To read the full article by Jen Kinney, click here.

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