Class of ’90 | Elissa Brown C’90 is getting indignant. The subject at hand is the Penn State sexual-abuse scandal, and as a cognitive behavioral psychologist who specializes in helping kids who have suffered physical, sexual, or incident-based trauma, she has plenty of cause for indignation.
“There is so much attention given to the football side of it, and to a lesser degree the system side of it, in terms of how Penn State is going to handle it and what are the economic repercussions for Penn State and all of that,” says Brown, a psychology professor at St. John’s University in Queens. “No one talks about the victims! What are the short-term impacts; what are the long-term impacts; how important are the caregivers in preventing the long-term impact?”
What’s particularly infuriating, she adds, is: “We know all that! There is so much science to guide that conversation!”
The 44-year-old Brown has a deep understanding of the extent to which abuse hurts children. But she also knows that there are scientifically proven, user-friendly methods to treat kids who’ve been abused, and to prevent it in the first place. That’s why she founded the Child HELP Partnership, a therapy treatment center at St. John’s that puts these methods into practice. Originally called PARTNERS (Preventing Adverse Reactions To Negative Events and Related Stress), the center expanded its community projects and educational programs. Its range can be gleaned from the acronym HELP, whose letters stand for Healing children after trauma, Empowering multicultural communities by adapting services for their needs; running a Learning center that trains other psychologists to carry on the practice; and offering an evidence-informed Prevention program to train parents how to prevent abuse before it starts.
“We get to hundreds of kids with our direct services,” says Brown, who serves as the center’s executive director. “We’ve treated thousands of kids. We can get to tens of thousands of kids by training professionals. We can get to hundreds of thousand of kids by developing a really good prevention program.”
She and her center have broken more than a few barriers. First, she only uses treatments on children that have been scientifically proven by randomized clinical trials. Although that may not sound radical, some mental-health professionals have taken an approach that is more art than science, performing services that are not exactly evidence-based.
Next, drawing on the richly diverse community of Queens (whose population includes families from more than 100 countries who speak 170 different languages), the Child HELP Partnership has figured out how to take treatments and make them work for non-white, non-middle-class populations. (After Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of Queens, the Child HELP Partnership immediately helped coordinate disaster mental-health services to children and families hit hardest by the storm.)
“Some families come from countries with no established medical system,” says Brown. “They get nervous when we ask them to fill out paperwork because they think we are going to call INS. They aren’t used to a culture of having an appointment at the same hour once a week.
“There are so many things that make that family less likely to show up, less likely to be satisfied with therapy, less likely to finish,” she adds. “The data shows this.”
The solutions they’ve created are built on seemingly small details that work. For example, the center offers snacks, childcare, and treatment in community libraries, rather than the scary medical building with the big red sign that says Center for Psychological Services. Then there is the prevention aspect of the program, which was a novelty even to Brown.
“I came a little late to prevention,” she admits, “because I was so much of an advocate for the victimized that I wasn’t as focused on prevention.”
There are simple steps that parents can take to protect their kids from physical or sexual abuse: making sure they are never alone with an un-vetted adult; checking in on soccer and piano lessons when the teacher is not expecting it; having honest conversations with kids about sex and what is appropriate; using forms of punishment other than spanking. Because of the stigma attached to those issues, Brown and her team have created free classes for parents that address less emotionally charged topics, such as CPR and physical safety techniques, as well as ways to prevent abuse.
Having undergone numerous complicated and unpleasant medical procedures as a child (some 20 surgeries from birth to college to correct craniofacial abnormalities), Brown has a sense of how children feel after traumatic experiences.
“What I’m able to do is understand where these kids are coming from, but not make it about me,” she says.
Brown says she got her passion for justice from her father, Alan Brown W’64—who taught her “to fight for what’s right and get on the soapbox.” The underpinnings of her scientific rigor came during her undergraduate years at Penn, when she studied under psychology professors such as Martin Seligman Gr’67 and Robert DeRubeis, both of whom taught her the importance of approaching psychology from a scientific perspective and testing all methods. She also volunteered for Women Organized Against Rape, an experience that heightened her awareness of sexual abuse and the support that victims need.
“It was about these women and children calling this hotline, and in a brief period of time, being able to give them some sort of semblance of, ‘You’re not alone, your reactions are totally understandable, I’m going to find you some resources,’” she recalls.
Brown’s current work with the Child HELP Partnership has a somewhat different focus but similar underpinnings: “It is,” she says, “about advocacy and empowerment.”
Esther Deblinger, a professor of psychology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and co-director of the New Jersey Child Abuse Research Education and Service Institute, has worked with Brown for a decade.
Brown is “150 percent committed to ensuring that children receive mental-health services that are scientifically supported and evidence-based, at the cutting edge,” says Deblinger. “She has tremendous energy and absolute commitment to children and their welfare and ensuring they get the best possible services that are available.”
—Alyson Krueger C’07