- Children often lose their future when they lose their street address. Add in drugs, violence and family instability, and the scale tilts toward tragedy. But imagine for a minute, What if?
Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large came close when he called for our community to fight poverty, increase drug intervention and “do something more about homelessness.”
But Large missed something critical: We need to support children’s healthy development, and we need to get crucial support to families in crises.
Experiences shape the brain. Drugs, violence and homelessness tilt the scale toward tragedy. Understanding this gives us a framework to develop effective strategies to address the root causes of family crises and cultivate resiliency.
There is a lot about these teens that we don’t know, and their cases haven’t gone to trial. But we know they live in poverty; their parents have been involved in drugs; their father is in prison. Their mother accused their father of threatening to kill her; and she lost her parental rights.
We also know that when Wellspring Family Services works with families who fit this profile, they stabilize. They move through trauma and go on to thrive.
Which begs the question, what if?
EXPERIENCE BUILDS THE BRAIN
Who we are is dictated by our relationship and connection to the world.
This isn’t a philosophical argument; it’s the essence of brain science. Positive or negative, what happens in our lives shapes us: Our ability to empathize and make friends; to plan and organize; our physical and mental health.
All of these loop back to our brain and its basic architecture.
As infants, we start with a blueprint – our genes – and simple circuits, or connections. From there, experiences influence how or whether those genes will be expressed, and human interactions shape the complex circuitry that evolves. The circuitry we build and strengthen as young children lays the foundation for future learning, health and behavior.
Generally positive experiences lead to healthy development.
But homelessness, violence and drugs? Those adverse experiences can stunt foundational areas of the brain, even dictate how parts of the brain work together. Some stress is OK, even necessary for healthy development, but toxic stress, coupled with poor interactions, means children start life with a weak foundation. This affects everything that comes after.
One of the most dramatic impacts is on executive functioning – that is, our ability to organize and act on information, to regulate impulses, plan ahead, remember things, prioritize and pay attention.
These skills play a pivotal role in success in school, parenting and managing day-to-day adult life.
Extreme poverty, family instability, exposure to drug or alcohol abuse, domestic or neighborhood violence, the death or loss of a parent – all are examples of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can stress the brain and have lifelong effects on health and behavior.
All appear to be factors in the lives of these three brothers.
BUT, WHAT IF …
The brain is building fastest and is most flexible in infancy and early childhood. That’s when the back and forth of healthy parent-to-child interaction positively shape and strengthen brain circuits.
So what if years ago the parents of these brothers had been referred to Wellspring’s Parent-Child Services?
For homeless mothers, abuse survival is the norm. These women have twice the rate of drug and alcohol dependence. This affects their ability to form trusting relationships. At Wellspring, we work with these moms, providing intensive in-home therapy to support their caregiving ability. If they can participate for at least six months, about nine out of 10 parents strengthen their attachment and parenting skills.
The bonding enables that crucial back and forth that their children’s developing brains need.
And what if the brothers had been enrolled in Wellspring’s Early Learning Center?
We designed the center to give children experiencing trauma the stability and support they need to “rewire” and repair. Teachers work to develop children’s social emotional, fine and gross motor skills so that they can meet language, literacy and other learning goals.
And if the boys’ father did threaten their mother’s life, what if he had attended Wellspring’s Domestic Violence Intervention program? What if he had enrolled in our DV Dads program? You can learn how to nurture healthy and safe relationships.
What if the family had enrolled in Wellspring’s Housing Services and found not only a stable place to live, but learned critical goal-setting and financial management skills?
IT’S UP TO US
For those three boys – 17, 16 and 13 – a destructive cycle is playing out. Two people have died and the loss and violence have sent shockwaves through our region.
But imagine what if, and play it forward.
Right now, in King County, there are close to 2,200 children, aged 0 to 17, who are living in homelessness. What if we tipped the scales the other way? Toward a healthy future?
Positive experience. Responsive relationships. Stable lives. We CAN make a difference.
- Sandy Lowe, Chief Program Development Officer
ABOUT WELLSPRING: We serve King County through two social enterprises, Counseling Services and our Employee Assistance Program, as well as our Community Services, which help families stabilize and cultivate resilience. Community Services include:
- Housing Services
- Domestic Violence Intervention
- Parent-Child Services
- Early Learning Center
- Baby Boutique, our free store for children’s essentials
Our mission: Build emotionally healthy, self-sufficient families and a nonviolent community in which they can thrive.