Access to quality services for children and training for professionals are two of the biggest barriers to better help children who have experienced trauma. That was the message that local educators, medical staff, social workers, law enforcement officers, foster parents, and community-based social service providers shared with Pennsylvania’s Child Advocate Maryann McEvoy during a roundtable discussion Nov. 17.

The invitation-only roundtable was filled to capacity with 24 participants. The roundtable was organized and facilitated by Robin Adams, founder of ImPACT — Protecting Against Childhood Trauma. ImPACT is the parent organization of Tioga County CASA, Tioga County CAC, Nurture Me and Asa’s Place. More information on ImPACT and how it serves Tioga County children can be found at impartareyou.org.

The roundtable was designed to inform McEvoy, as the newly-appointed Child Advocate for Pennsylvania, how local professionals view Tioga County’s ability to protect and serve vulnerable children.

Since taking the post this past August, McEvoy has visited about 200 of the Commonwealth’s 600 DHS licensed facilities that provide services for children. She plans to visit the remaining 400 by June as she advocates for how a Pennsylvania Senate confirmed Office of the Child Advocate could function. Currently, her office is housed within the Office of Advocacy and Reform. McEvoy envisions a stand-alone Office of the Child Advocate that contains seven regional advocates, each responsible for about nine counties.

That will be a challenge for this area, said attendees, due to the physical size of the counties.

“How do you cover a region when the region is six times the size of anywhere else?” asked one person.

Placement of any regional office is also critical as distance would determine how often roundtable members would see the representative, said those at the meeting. “Something in the county isn’t enough,” said Cheryl Sottalano.

A team of educators from Northern Tioga School District emphasized the challenge of accessing services and a lack of providers, even if present in the county. A mobile unit that travels between communities would be useful, but there’s also an opportunity to place services in the schools to serve students during the day and adults at night, they suggested. Additionally, educators expressed concerns about the ability to secure funds for services, such as the school resource officer funded in the past. It is challenging as oftentimes, once funding ends for the position, the position is eliminated within a few years when the school is financially unable to continue the position.

Privatization of social services for children was a concern expressed by Tiffany Welch, a professor of sociology at Mansfield University. Foster parents also noted the lack of training of caseworkers and a lack of quality training for foster parents to help them better understand and meet the unique needs of foster children with trauma histories. Privatization affects not only those providing services, but employees, children receiving service, families, and foster parents, they said.

Foster parents noted that respite care seems to be the only solution offered when foster families are dealing with challenging placements. They spoke on the challenges of using respite care, saying that changes to caregiving — even for a weekend — can have a negative impact on an already traumatized child.

Informal Kinship Care is also problematic, they said, because children from broken families are often placed within the same broken family and can be moved from relative to relative, continuing the cycle. Parental training also has a role, one educator noting that instead of Big Brother Big Sister, there should be a similar mentoring group for parents.

“We can’t advocate for our children when we don’t advocate for our families,” McEvoy said.

McEvoy said that the office will be looking at changing mindsets as well as practices, and will create opportunities to collaborate with criminal and court staff.

A state trooper suggested that attitudes are easier to modify at the beginning of the officer’s career, while still training at the academy, instead of in the middle. He suggested training on the topic of trauma’s impact on children might be able to be incorporated during training at the academy in the future.

McEvoy agreed and noted that police often think of trauma in the physical sense, not realizing that social and emotional trauma, particularly Adverse Childhood Experiences can have a lasting impact on the cognitive and psychological development of our populations.

Trauma, McEvoy shared, lies at the root of various epidemics that children and adults alike struggle with throughout Pennsylvania. For this reason, an Office of the Child Advocate would be designed to increase trauma-informed supports and services to communities across all systems and sectors.

View the Trauma-Informed PA: A Plan to Make Pennsylvania a Trauma-Informed, Healing-Centered State, which is guiding the commonwealth and service providers statewide on what it means to be trauma-informed and healing-centered in Pennsylvania.

Adams noted that ImPACT hopes to continue facilitating meetings with McEvoy and to bring more voices to the table in the future. She noted, “One meeting won’t end childhood victimization and trauma in Tioga County, and it certainly won’t remedy our response. But, it’s a start down a path we’ve not walked before — a path guided by the Child Advocate, an independent fact-finder and leader, not someone subject to the push-and-pull of local politics. It is a new journey, and one that includes the opinions and suggestions of all relevant stakeholders, not just child welfare.”

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