RIC Trains Social Workers in Trauma-Informed Care

Children in the child welfare system endure multiple traumas over the course of their lives. The National Center for Children in Poverty reported that more than half of these children experience a mental health disorder. Yet 85 percent of them do not receive adequate mental health treatment.

In Rhode Island, according to Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, a large portion of state funding goes toward crisis-driven hospitalizations rather than out-patient services. This can lead to a host of adverse outcomes. 

In response, RIC’s School of Social Work created a new Certificate of Graduate Studies (C.G.S.) in child and adolescent trauma to target mental health services for youth in the child welfare system.

Professor Jayashree Nimmagadda.

Jayashree Nimmagadda, RIC M.S.W. professor and chair, is one of the founders of the program but noted that it would not have been possible without the assistance of Dan Harvey, RIC M.S.W. assistant professor; Family Service of Rhode Island (FSRI) social workers; FSRI Senior Vice President Sue Erstling; and FSRI Senior Clinical Administrator Sarah Kelly-Palmer. 

The goal of the program is to increase the number of master’s-level social workers trained to work with traumatized youth and to increase the number of field placements and post-graduation job placements in agencies that work with children and their families. The first students in the program began classes this summer. 

In framing the problem, Nimmagadda explained that children in foster care have been exposed to a wide range of traumas, including domestic violence, emotional abuse, neglect, physical abuse, sexual trauma, incarceration of a parent, violence in unsafe communities and lack of permanency due to multiple moves or placements within the child welfare system.

“These youth are four to six times more likely to experience depression, alcohol dependence, suicide attempts and drug abuse,” she said, “and while teenage pregnancy as a whole is going down, teenage pregnancy for this group is going up by 30 percent.”

"We are particularly interested in youth who are reaching the age where they are exiting out of foster care,” she said. “In Rhode Island, when adolescents turn 18, they are taken out of the child welfare system, literally overnight. At that point, the state is no longer responsible for them. There used to be a safety net for youth between the ages of 18 and 21, but in 2007 that policy was changed.”

To “capture” these children before they exit the system, Nimmagadda created a new field placement site at Rhode Island Family Court.

“We reached out to Chief Justice Haiganush Bedrosian because she sees these children in her court all the time,” she said. “With her support, our field students will be present at hearings in Providence and Warwick, not only when these children are released from state custody but any time they appear before the judge. We will engage them in a conversation, beginning with their basic needs. Do you have a medical card? Do you have a primary care doctor? Do you have a mental health professional who is helping you? If we can catch them at 16, we have two years to work with them before they are released.”

Field placements are also assigned at the House of Hope: Harrington Hall – a 120-bed shelter. “Many youth who turn 18 and are released from state custody are now homeless and end up there,” said Nimmagadda. “Our students literally go out on the street to find them and bring them to House of Hope for clinical services.” 

The C.G.S. program in trauma-informed care has an interprofessional education component in which RIC social work students work with students from the URI and RIC Schools of Nursing, URI’s Schools of Pharmacy and Physical Therapy, and the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University.

They are taught how to communicate and work as a team and to understand each other’s roles and responsibilities. Simulation activities build team-based responses and simulations are videotaped, played back and processed using debriefing techniques. 

Nimmagadda hopes that this push toward trauma-informed assessment and treatment, along with increased interprofessional collaboration, will help bridge much-needed gaps in state services.

The C.G.S. program in child and adolescent trauma is part of the Trauma-Informed Collaborative Care Education project initiated by RIC’s School of Social Work and funded by a grant from the Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training for Professionals. The School of Social Work is also a participant in the National Center for Social Work Trauma Education and Workforce Development, a joint initiative of Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service and Hunter College School of Social Work. 

RIC’s School of Social Work educates and trains approximately 75 percent of the practicing masters-level social workers in Rhode Island, including many leaders of nonprofit and government agencies in Rhode Island. It is also the only graduate social work program in the state.