New free therapy program launches for Philly students

Radio feature for WHYY's Keystone Crossroads, April 2018

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The fire that destroyed her dad’s third-floor apartment is the scariest thing that’s ever happened to 8-year-old Dakota Johnson. It was five-thirty in the morning. Someone on the first floor of the building had fallen asleep smoking. Dakota and her dad, Kenneth Johnson, woke up to the sound of the fire alarm. First it seemed like it might be just a small blaze, but when Johnson opened the door to the apartment, smoke and soot rushed in. Dakota was too scared to crawl out into the hallway, so the two ended up fleeing through a window.

Physically, they were mostly all right, but Dakota’s dad had inhaled some smoke. He’d also lost all of his belongings in the flames. The emotional toll of the experience was another story. Long after the fire was extinguished, Dakota’s fear remained.

She’d always been sensitive, but in the days and weeks afterwards, she began to cry easily. She was afraid to go sleep. She was still a good student — her favorite subject is math, and she carries a backpack emblazoned “#GirlGenius” — but she started leaving class with stomach aches, and making frequent trips to the school counselor.

“I have nightmares about it sometimes,” said Dakota, her voice small, her face buried in her mother’s shoulder as she spoke. “I’m scared and I have” — she turns to mom Sheena Holbrook, whispers to her, “what’s the word?” then turns back — “anxiety!”

Dakota lives in a neighborhood where trauma is common. The 22nd Police District in North Philadelphia has some of the city’s highest rates of both gun violence and poverty. Like Dakota, children who experience that violence and fear may not be able to shake it so easily. Trauma can impact how they learn, triggering the “fight, flight, or freeze” instincts that can make it difficult for children to concentrate and absorb new information. Some studies suggest trauma may alter genetics, and be passed down generation to generation.

Now a new program is trying to break that cycle by offering trauma therapy to children living or attending school in parts of North Philadelphia. Run by the Joseph J. Peters Institute (JJPI), a Philadelphia leader in trauma research and treatment, the program is free to children aged 3 to 18, regardless of parents’ insurance. Philadelphia already has a network of mental health providers offering trauma-informed therapy, but they are only open to Medicaid holders, and none had been based in the 22nd Police District.

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Photo by Jessica Kourkounis