When love is not enough

The Institute of Child Development is training the judicial community how to help children most at risk.

When love is not enough

Sharing their expertise with the judicial community is just one way Karyn Purvis, and David Cross, below, are helping children who had abusive or violent experiences early in life. (Photography by Glen E. Ellman)

When love is not enough

The Institute of Child Development is training the judicial community how to help children most at risk.

Karyn Purvis, codirector of the Institute of Child Development (ICD), does not shy away from strong emotions and gut-wrenching stories when she needs to make a point. In June, she stood before a room filled with more than 400 judges, lawyers and child welfare workers gathered for the third Texas Judicial Summit and told them that children who come from “hard places” need specialized parenting and help. Then she and codirector David Cross told them precisely how to go about it.

The ICD has been researching and developing that special kind of help for the past 12 years and now offers extensive training to parents and others who care about children such as Ana, who was helped during ICD’s The Hope Connection camp several years ago. Ana was part of a three-sibling set, ages, 4, 5 and 6, adopted from Russia. Not long after, the youngest was dead and the other two had been placed in protective custody, Purvis says.

“Every morning of camp, Ana, the 5-year-old, came in and had a violent episode. She would start hitting and kicking and biting, her eyes would get wild, she would say, ‘I’m going to kill you and drink your blood. You are the devil.’ She would just become psychotic. And so every morning, I’d cradle and rock her until she stopped the violence and then I’d take her hand and I’d look into this child’s beautiful blue eyes and I’d say, ‘Baby, can you tell me what you need?’ Ana would say, ‘I need to go swimming.’ So, I’d take her to the pool. She wanted to go to the deep diving area. She wanted me to face her, go under the water and then gasp for air and grab the side. Then she wanted to play like she was drowning and ask me to save her. So, I’d reach and pull her to me and say, ‘I’ve got you. I’ve got you.’ Every morning for the first week and half, the same pattern repeated. After she went to the pool, she would be calm for the rest of the day.

“During the camp, the kids were learning to self-regulate, calm themselves, how to recognize feelings, use words. They were learning all of the social skills they should’ve learned cradled in their mothers’ arms. That last morning of camp, Ana started to have an episode and I cradled her in my arms and said, ‘Can you give me words?’ She took my hand and led me to the 4-year-old classroom and pointed out a little girl with beautiful green eyes and honey brown hair.

“Ana said, ‘She looks like my sister and every morning when I see that little girl, I remember Black Turtle (which is what they called their adoptive mother) holding my sister under the water in the swimming pool until she could hardly breathe. I remember Black Turtle holding her under the water in the bath tub until she almost couldn’t breathe. Every time I see that little girl, I remember the last day that Black Turtle held my sister under the water, and I remember when she pulled her body out of the water and set her up on the side of the pool and I remember when my sister’s body fell back and her head cracked on the concrete. And I remember in the hospital when her body was white and she was covered with a sheet and I held her hand and said goodbye. She didn’t say goodbye back.’

“She was having a flashback every morning when she saw that little girl. Through the camp, she learned to use her words and say that she felt afraid. Ana was hidden in protective custody but was still afraid that Black Turtle was going to find her. These little kids watched their sister tortured for months before she died. When a child learns to use her words, she can begin a journey of healing.”

Purvis, a straight-talking dynamo with a seemingly endless supply of passion for helping children, knows that stories like Ana’s will help those gathered for the summit do a better job of protecting the children under their care.

The summits, created by Purvis as a project of TCU’s Institute of Child Development, train professionals to handle foster and adoptive placements for children whose needs cannot be addressed through traditional parenting.

Photo “We’ve got a lot of good, moral, God-fearing people parenting these children and driving them wild,” Purvis explains. “There’s a wide range of parenting skills that can be effective for a child who has not been harmed. But for kids who come from what we call ‘hard places,’ the window of effective parenting is very, very small.

“Because they don’t trust, because they’ve got fragile brain chemistry, their ability to process senses has been changed by their history. Strategies you might use with a biological child who has every reason to trust you, can’t be used with these children unless you want to drive them into violence or psychosis.”

Much of the Institute’s work is centered on its Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TRBI) program, a specialized method for parenting neglected or abused children that was created by Purvis and Cross. They began the Judicial Summits when they realized that they could reach far more of the parents by training the professionals who make decisions about child placements.

“Dr. Purvis’ work and research is improving the quality of life for foster and adoptive children in Smith County and the state of Texas,” said Judge Carole Clark of the 321st District Court in Tyler. “From each seminar, we take away new ideas and implement them as fast as we can. I have attended all of her summits and have taken 20 to 30 people each time, getting grants to involve as many in the CPS system as possible. Everyone is always awed and inspired by her work.”

Years before coming to TCU, Purvis worked as a street minister and foster parent. She took in homeless kids, helping them with issues like drug abuse and prostitution. She’s seen it all.

“I was that starry-eyed foster mother who thought if I just love these kids enough, it will be okay. What I now know is that it takes a balance of structure and nurture. If a child is violent or mentally ill and acting out, they need more structure and we have to find creative ways to give more structure. These caregivers start out thinking ‘I’ll just give lots of love,’ then the acting-out behaviors accelerate, and pretty soon, nice, good, warm-hearted people find themselves punitive and aggressive.”

Parents practicing TBRI learn to “give a voice” to children who never learned to communicate their needs, while still insisting on respectful attitudes and non-violence. The Institute provides intensive trainings, camps, DVDs, as well as one-on-one, individualized instruction. The Judicial Summits help the professionals working with these parents understand which methods are successful and which are not.

Purvis says the most important lesson for parents and professionals alike is to remember that these children have experienced great pain and their healing will require extraordinary effort.

“So many people are looking at the smoke, which is the child’s behavior, that they don’t see the fire, which is the pain and fear,” Purvis says. “You’ve got to deal with the smoke, but you’re not going to be effective unless you have compassion for the fire. That’s our mission.”

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