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Julie Sjordal: With ‘deep commitment’ from families and professionals, young children can heal from trauma

Courtesy of St. David’s Center for Child and Family Development
St. David’s Center for Child and Family Development's expansion into the newly expanded Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.

Childhood should be a carefree time of play and exploration, but the deep impact of poverty, drug addiction and generational trauma means that some young children struggle with mental health disorders that rival those of adults. Children as young as infants and toddlers can benefit from mental health care that is developmentally and culturally appropriate.

Founded as a Minnetonka preschool in 1961, St. David’s Center for Child and Family Development has for decades offered programs designed to help young children and their families build healthy ties and recover from trauma. The nonprofit has grown over the years, with staff offering services in locations around the Twin Cities metro area.

Last Monday, St. David’s made a move into Minneapolis when its Harman Center for Child and Family Wellbeing opened in the newly expanded Westminster Presbyterian Church building at 1200 S. Marquette Ave. The new program is an extension of St. David’s Minnetonka services, with expanded offerings for children and families.

St. David’s CEO Julie Sjordal led the nonprofit through this expansion. I talked to her about her organization’s focus on the mental health of young children, on her long tenure and what this recent expansion means for the families that St. David’s serves.

“We are committed to these children and families,” Sjordal said. “We understand their struggles, and we stay with them as they work to heal.”  

MP: This is your 30th year at St. David’s. How did you get started there?

JS: It was one of my first jobs out of college. I started working as a home visitor in the late ‘80s when the community was just starting to provide funding for support services for families who had kids with disabilities. I have a sister who has Down syndrome and thought I would love to work with other families like mine and help them find their way. We had Hennepin County funding and some state funding for me to come in and work with families and find out what they needed to help the child be successful in their home and community. I helped set goals for the child and did parent training and coordination. It was more of a social-work-type home visiting. I’ve stayed with the organization ever since.

This is my eighth year as CEO. When the board offered me the position, I was thrilled and honored to accept.

MP: St. David’s has been based in Minnetonka for years. What inspired you to open this new facility in Minneapolis?

JS: We have hundreds of partnerships with organizations around the metro area where our staff has provided services on site. We decided that this move was a great way to increase our reach in the community, and the pieces all fell together: Westminster Presbyterian was developing their plan for their new building in downtown Minneapolis. They wanted to make space for a nonprofit partner that was serving the community located in their building. They developed a process and invited St. David’s to submit a proposal that explained what we would do with 10,000 square feet of space. 

MP: Did that feel like a challenge?

JS: Not really. We knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to develop a child and well-being center where we replicated many of the services that are available at our Minnetonka site. This center will be primarily focused on kids who have experienced trauma. We wanted those services to be centered on young families, and we wanted to be closer and accessible to where many of the families live.

MP: St. David’s also moved its East African autism day treatment program from northeast Minneapolis to this new site. Why?

JS: The Northeast Minneapolis site was in an industrial park. It wasn’t ideal, but we moved there because we wanted to be close to a Somali-serving child care organization. Then that organization closed, so it made sense for us to move the program downtown and bring our whole team together.

MP: Your mental health program offers services to very young children and their families. How do you identify that a toddler has experienced trauma or is dealing with a mental health disorder? It’s not like they can tell you that they’re feeling out of sorts.

Julie Sjordal
Photo by Leslie Kellum
Julie Sjordal

JS: That identification begins with having an understanding of typical childhood development. You start with observation. A 2-year-old or an 18- or 12-month-old who has a secure attachment with a primary caregiver will constantly touch base with their caregiver. They’ll feel some distress when they are separated from their caregiver. They’ll have a happy disposition when they reunite with their caregiver. When you see a 12-month-old who is emotionally flat and whose relationship with their primary caregiver feels distant or strained, there is some indication there. Then when you learn that this child’s family has experienced some struggle, say there’s been reports to child protection for violent behavior, or separation to the foster care system. Those kinds of things take a toll on young children just like they take a toll on adults, and it can show in their mental health.

MP: Do younger children feel the impact of this kind of trauma on a deeper level than older children or adults do? 

JS: Think of how much more traumatizing these experiences are for a young, vulnerable child. Think of how traumatic it must be for them to see so much instability coming from the adults who are the focus of their world.

When intense trauma happens to a young child, over time it actually changes their brain development. The adrenaline that is coursing through their system has an impact on their development. This impact starts to show up in a number of ways: The child might have very flat affect. They might seem clinically depressed. They might be too afraid to explore, instead trying to keep themselves safe. They might be reluctant to play with toys in a room full of toys.

MP: How do children and their families connect with your program?

JS: In a variety of ways. One way we get referrals is through child care centers. Teachers there may have seen a child act out violently in the classroom, throw chairs or push other children down. Centers will call us and say, “We have child who is out of the typical boundaries of behavior.” We also have physicians that make referrals to us. Or Hennepin County Social Services, the school district or foster care providers also refer.

MP: What kind of programs do you have available for children and families?

JS: We have a whole set of programs available, including the Family Place Day Treatment Program, which is designed for children who are struggling to mange their emotions and behaviors at home or in child care setting. It is a classroom-based mental health treatment model for kids age 2.5 to kindergarten who have a developmental mental health need.

Another one of our programs is a parent-child psychotherapy program. It is designed for parents and children as young as infants up to age 4. This program helps parents and children develop a healthier attachment relationship. We often get referrals to that program from foster homes or social workers out of Hennepin County.

MP: Who pays for these programs?

JS: We have contracts with all the major insurance companies. But a lot of times families who are vulnerable and have complex situations might not be employed. Medicaid is a major funder of many or our services for the vulnerable populations we work with. We feel it is important that Medicaid continue to cover these invaluable services.

MP: It sounds like you work with some kids and families who face a lot of challenges. Has your program been successful at helping them heal and break generational cycles of trauma?

JS: We have some great outcomes. I don’t want to paint a rosier picture than is true: These are families with generations of trauma, which is hard to break down. I believe that all parents come into parenting with all the will in their hearts to be great parents and help their children grow and thrive. When a parent does something as unnatural as not protecting their children in dangerous situations or even harming them, I believe that comes out of their own experiences and pain. Addressing intergenerational trauma is not a quick fix. It takes a deep commitment. It takes staying the course with them.

MP: How does St. David’s “stay the course” with families?

JS: In our Family Place Day Treatment Program, for instance, we have kids for half days five days a week. We do weekly home visits with the parents. We work with those families for 12 to 18 months. We stick around.

With this program, we see wonderful incremental changes. We see a lot of hope when there’s that commitment from the staff and from the families, when we stay the course and we try to build a community of support behind that.

MP: Tell me more about your new facility.

JS: We have 10,000 square feet, 8,000 of that is ours alone. We’re on the second floor of the Westminster building, adjoined with the church’s old, beautiful building. There are big windows with light streaming into the rooms. It’s a unique, beautiful space.

When Westminster gave us the opportunity to create a child and family wellness center, we worked with their architect to design the space to meet our needs. In the end, they created this beautiful space with an open, airy lobby and underground parking. You walk into a space with light streaming in from the stained glass windows. Our clinic includes five mental health therapy rooms, two occupational therapy gyms, a speech therapy room and two classrooms where we provide the intensive day treatment. We have about 30 staff on site.

MP: Why is your new facility named the Harman Center for Child and Family Wellbeing?

JS: It is named for Scott Harman, a dear colleague who passed away a year and a half ago. He was an incredible leader, a therapist and a social worker who was deeply invested in helping our staff understand the impact of early attachment. I worked alongside him for 20 years. He had a lovely way of teaching the work. When we had this opportunity to name this center in his honor, it felt like the right thing to do.

MP: Your deal with Westminster Presbyterian seems pretty sweet.

JS: It is. When we applied for the opportunity and were awarded it, they said, “We’ll give you the space at a nominal cost.” They were true to their word. They gave us an incredibly affordable 10-year lease. The deal was that we had to raise the funds for our own build-out.

MP: So how are you raising that money?

JS: We are in the midst of a $4.5 million capital campaign. We’ve raised $2.1 million so far, and we have $2.4 million to go.

MP: Speaking of fundraising, your annual gala was on Saturday night.

JS: It was our 29th gala. We invited 480 guests. Our goal was to raise over $400,000 to support our range of early-intervention programs. This is not part of our capital campaign. This is for operating expenses.  It’s a great event, with a lot of inspiring stories.

MP: Can you tell me some of those stories?

JS: One family is from Somalia. They have a little boy who is on the autism spectrum. They were feeling so concerned and confused about his behavior. Then they learned about our East African-focused autism program, and they brought their son there. They tell this incredible story of feeling supported and hopeful and seeing tremendous growth in their son’s language and behavior since he came to the day treatment program.

Another story is about a dad and his two sons. They were referred to us through Hennepin County courts because the children were removed from the dad’s care and put into foster care due to his meth addiction. This father is now in recovery, and he so eloquently talks about how terrible it was to face the fact that he couldn’t provide adequate care for his children. Over time, through our parent-child psychotherapy program, this dad learned what his meth addiction was doing to his children. Though he was resentful at first, he eventually became tremendously grateful for the foster parent who took his children in and loved them and helped them feel safe. He feels like it was a godsend to have a therapist who could help him find insight about what he can do to become an effective parent.

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