Virtual town hall focuses on youth trauma, fostering resiliency

  • The Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, in collaboration with 11 other organizations, held a virtual town hall Friday. SCREENSHOT

Staff Writer
Published: 3/14/2021 2:50:55 PM
Modified: 3/14/2021 2:50:54 PM

The Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, in collaboration with 11 other organizations, held a virtual town hall Friday to examine the impact of trauma on youths and how communities can foster resiliency.

Featured speakers, some via pre-recorded remarks, spoke at the third “Building a Resilient Community” gathering, held on the video conferencing platform Zoom from 10 a.m. to noon. The event, which at one point had 92 participants, was titled “A Community Response to Break the Cycle of Trauma: A Virtual Town Hall to Address the Needs of Children and Youth in Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region.”

Kara McLaughlin, co-chair of the Opioid Task Force’s Education & Prevention Committee and former director of the Gill-Montague Community School Partnership, said young people acting out are typically handled with “Ritalin, Adderall, detention and suspension.” But, she said, these treat the symptoms of misbehavior, not the cause.

“We need to do better,” she said.

Acknowledging the comparison might be unbecoming, McLaughlin said humans and rats have similar responses to stresses, though studies show a rat will calm down when licked by its mother. McLaughlin said caring adults can help relieve toxic stress in children.

“Just like rats licking their pups, we need to nurture our collective children,” she said.

McLaughlin also said diet, exercise and mindfulness can quell anxiety.

Opioid Task Force Coordinator Debra McLaughlin, who is not related to Kara McLaughlin, emceed the virtual town hall. She said the past 12 months have been difficult for everyone’s mental health, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated society’s other problems, such as political unrest, systemic racism and the worsening opioid epidemic. She said the public health crisis has also increased food and housing insecurity, which are causes of great stress.

“Despite these adversities, there are many stories of hope and resilience,” she said.

It was explained that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) consist of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and household dysfunctions such as mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, having a parent treated violently, or having an incarcerated relative.

Judge Beth Crawford, first justice of the Franklin Family and Probate Court and the Franklin Family Drug Court, said she learned about trauma when, as a new lawyer, she was appointed the bar advocate for a 15-year-old boy who went on a crime spree in several counties.

“Some of the things that he had done seemed absolutely senseless,” she said, elaborating that the teenager had rammed a line of shopping carts into vehicles at a supermarket, causing extensive damage. “I later learned that there was a story behind his behavior, and this was really my first introduction into what trauma can do to kids.”

Crawford explained that teenager, when he was 11, saw his best friend killed by a vehicle while riding their bicycles. The boy was required to testify at the vehicular homicide trial of the driver, who was found not guilty. Crawford said the boy’s mother was oblivious to how much her son had been affected by his friend’s untimely death.

“She said she thought he was fine because he didn’t talk about it,” Crawford recalled. “Ultimately, this story had a really good outcome for my client. He began working with a really skilled therapist, who specialized in traumatic death. This therapist was a Vietnam War veteran, who had experienced the death of many friends himself. My client developed a really close relationship with him that lasted for years.”

Eventually, attendees went into breakout sessions.

The attendees included Franklin County Register of Probate John Merrigan, Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. All three are Opioid Task Force co-chairs.

Merrigan said incarcerated people have high rates of childhood trauma, and intervention and transition programs can help reduce incarceration and recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend.

He and Sullivan took a moment to commend and thank Crawford, who is set to retire at the end of the month.

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