Volunteers from New Trier Township High school made braclets with students at Rice Center.

The plight of some particularly vulnerable children whose whereabouts and struggles have been all but invisible in Evanston has touched the hearts of a group of volunteers who are using their fundraising expertise to bring help to the kids in the form of trauma-informed care (TIC).

The children live at the Daniel F. and Ada L Rice Child + Family Center, 1101 Washington St., a residential treatment center operated by Children’s Home + Aid. The Rice Center is a temporary home for a maximum of 36 kids ages 6 through 15, most of whose severe mental health and behavior issues stem from abuse and trauma.

The umbrella organization has provided residential services to children at this location for more than 100 years and built a large new facility there in 1991, yet many Evanstonians do not know it exists.

Research has shown that exposure to trauma in early childhood can adversely affect the wiring of a child’s brain, weakening neural pathways to the thinking part of the brain and strengthening the pathways to the survival part. This can leave a child incapable of processing information in the normal way and prone to too-quick fight-or-flight behavior.

Further, when the stress hormones that help a child react to a threat remain on high alert, besides having a drastic effect on the architecture and function of the child’s brain, they can affect other organs, causing lifelong physical and mental health problems.

But research and imaging have also demonstrated that the intensive occupational therapy known as trauma-informed care can help rewire the brain of a young child.

Julie Cutter, who led a successful $500,000 campaign to fund the accessible Noah’s Playground for All in memory of her son, then joined the effort to raise money for a playground renovation at Park School. The result was a play yard appropriate for the severely disabled children who attend Park. A byproduct was a heightened awareness in the community of this District 65 public school.

Ms. Cutter is confident that dedicated volunteers can do something similar at Rice. They seek to raise $175,000 to cover two years’ salary and benefits for an occupational therapist with specialized advanced training in TIC. At the same time, Ms. Cutter hopes to raise consciousness about the Rice Center in the Evanston community.  The “Our Kids Our Community” campaign aims to show the children at Rice that “the world can be a loving and caring place and that people in the community care about them and want to help.”

The Center received some big news after the fundraising campaign for TIC was underway: Rice will be the recipient of as much as $1 million from next year’s Northwestern University Dance Marathon. But the fundraisers and Rice administration decided to proceed with their fund drive, ensuring that the trauma-informed therapist was not lost among the items on the Center’s long wish list.

Ninety-five percent of the children at Rice are wards of the State of Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Eighty-eight percent of them have experienced physical or emotional abuse; 75% have experienced a psychiatric hospitalization. Unable to live in a family setting, the children have averaged six failed foster placements.

Most of the residents attend Rice Education Center, a therapeutic day school located within the walls of the Center and funded by Evanston/Skokie School District 65. A few Rice residents go to other District 65 schools.

To compensate for the kids’ chaotic backgrounds, the residential center – “the first stable place they have had in a long time” – is highly structured, says Keith Polan, Director of Residential Services. The goal is for them to transition to a less restrictive environment and ultimately, to return home. Mr. Polan tells kids when they arrive that they will be at the Center for six months to two years but that it is not their home. While they are there, he says, “We will care for you and about you and give you the skills to cope on your own when you leave.”

He is committed to shortening the time kids live at Rice. The average stay was 30 to 38 months a dozen years ago and just 15 months in 2018. Mr. Polan says he can envision it falling to six months.

 Realizing that parents and family are “the most important thing in kids’ lives,” and that “kids with more family connections do better,” Mr. Polan says the Center strives to “bring the parents along on the journey.” That requires that they address such issues as trauma, attachment, domestic violence and substance abuse.

Each child has an individualized assessment, which is the basis of a treatment plan designed to enhance the client’s and family’s strengths while focusing on the issues that brought the family to the attention of DCFS.

Twenty years ago, the school and living quarters – and the residents themselves – were off limits to visitors. Not so in 2019. Training Coordinator Melvyn Tate, whose enthusiasm for the Center has not dimmed in the 41 years he has worked there, leads visitors on a comprehensive tour of the facility.

His focus is on the positive. “We have proof our kids can get better. …Kids do well if they can,” Mr. Tate says. He tells the staff, “Put yourself in their shoes,” and “It’s all about relationship,” without which, he says, “nothing works.”

Mr. Tate shows the visitors through the residential quarters. Nine children live in each of four coed units, mostly two to a room. A double room is “the prize,” Mr. Polan says, adding, “For our kids it’s hard to have a roommate.”

Each child is attended by a case manager, a therapist, a unit supervisor and many, from the look of their beds, by a crowd of stuffed animals. On a typical summer day, small groups might be working with professional therapists in the art room or yoga studio. They interact frequently with volunteers, whose talents Mr. Polan encourages by asking “What is your passion?”

In the rec room, kids play games or work on crafts with students from New Trier High School. Volunteers from the accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers are on hand two days a week to teach the kids financial literacy and play sports with them in the courtyard. Each activity is treated as a therapeutic intervention aimed at moving the child to a less restrictive setting.    

In the 1990s, the children at Rice were referred to as “emotionally disturbed,” a term no longer deemed useful. “Ninety-eight percent of the time,” Mr. Polan and Mr. Tate say, “they are like other kids.”    

The white board in Mr. Tate’s office is a reminder of the other 2%. On the board are instructions for handling an “incident” – the sort of outburst that may happen when a child becomes violent. The situation calls for a “therapeutic crisis intervention,” Mr. Tate says, “We may have to hold [him or her].” The post-crisis response involves analysis and documentation of the event in a collaborative effort to “reduce aggression caused by a trauma-informed environment,” Mr. Tate says – and always, to do better.

A trauma-informed occupational therapist will be able to use cutting-edge techniques based on the latest neuroscience models to change the wiring in the brains of the children at Rice. With the kind of highly specialized, intensive treatment TIC can provide, the kids can learn to slow down and not react on instinct, using calming techniques and practicing varied responses to anger or sadness.

“We have a unique opportunity to affect kids’ lives,” Mr. Polan says. He does not intend to squander it.