June 11, 2020
For Aaron Thompson helping kids and their families is a calling. He started his professional career counseling kids with behavioral and conduct troubles and found in the process that instability and trauma-related experiences in family units deeply affected children. This led him back to school, where he worked on his master’s degree in social work after which he ran programs for underserved populations as a school social worker and principal.
After completing his doctorate, Thompson’s passion turned toward helping kids on a grander scale. An MU associate professor of social work, Thompson and his colleagues at the Missouri Prevention Science Institute, Drs. Wendy Reinke, Kristin Hawley and Keith Herman, founded the Family Access Center for Excellence (FACE) of Boone County. The organization is a community center that provides free child-focused assessments and mental health support for kids and their families. It recently received a boost in funding of nearly $125,000 from the Boone County Children’s Services Fund to help children who are anxious due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In normal circumstances the school system just cannot do this alone because problems are embedded in the families,” said Thompson. “Now, with the added stressors of COVID-19, most low-income and underinsured families here in Columbia aren’t able to afford assessments for children who are distressed by current events.”
Most programs focus entirely on the child; however, FACE assessments take a more holistic approach where the whole family is evaluated. Counselors also meet with school leaders, peers and others in the community to assess medical needs, food insecurity issues and other factors. Follow-ups are scheduled every week for a month and then are staggered thereafter. The goal is to help guide families into more autonomous decision-making, eventually leading to permanent change. In 2019 alone, FACE counselors dedicated 780 hours of outreach and had direct contact with more than 6,000 Boone County citizens.
“All of our counselors are trained in conversational strategy to help reduce ambivalence to change,” Thompson said. “We use a more motivational ‘family checkup’ approach that is nonjudgmental and nonclinical. Instead, we’re more focused on what the concerns are of the family to help provide resources, including mental health providers, to ensure we can help make life easier. For kids and families who stick with it, we see better academic outcomes and fewer referrals to administrators.”
Because physical distancing is the new normal, Thompson and his FACE team put their assessment model into a telehealth or teleconference format in March to quickly triage families based upon severity of need. The new grant further allowed FACE to directly pay local area providers to provide up to 6 hours of free counseling for any Boone County family with a child aged 0 to 19 who is struggling with COVID related mental health issues. To participate in the program and receive referrals from FACE, any licensed local area mental health provider can sign a consultant agreement with FACE so they can receive payment for offering these counseling services.
“We have seen a significant uptick in the mental health and basic needs of families and this emergency procurement contract from Boone County is helping to fill that need,” Thompson said. “Our partnerships with nonprofit and other providers have enabled us to connect these families to food banks and medical resources—and we could not do any of this without the support and vision of the staff at Boone County Community Services or the financial investment made by the Boone County Children’s Services Fund—a tax that we all contribute to and is directly contributing to the well-being of Boone County youth. We’re constantly monitoring these cases and following up as needed. Boone County wanted to get these services to families quickly, and we’re grateful for the county’s commitment to helping kids and their families in this unprecedented time.”
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