It’s a building no one wants to have to build, but one that the San Antonio community and thousands of abused children will be thankful for. For the first time in South Texas, specialized outpatient mental health services for children and families impacted by abuse and neglect will be available at the Children’s Shelter‘s new Harvey E. Najim Hope Center.
The new facility celebrated its grand opening on Wednesday amid donors, board members, friends, staff, and reporters, but the real star of the show was Blue Hess, 20, who told an audience of more than 50, mostly strangers, that he was abused and abandoned by his birth parents as a young boy. He lived in the shelter’s emergency center for a while and after transferring to seven different foster homes in as many years, Hess was finally adopted by a family in San Antonio when he was 11. Years ago, he would have been described as a “victim” – of his biological parents, of the foster care system, and of the cycle of child abuse that so many young people succumb to. Today, he’s a UTSA junior taking classes towards a degree in human resources management.
“During my time (at the Children’s Shelter), I had such a wonderful time that I can always look back and think of happy memories,” Hess said, who now volunteers at the Children’s Shelter. While in foster care “I actually experienced lots of depression and anxiety that I had from trauma in my past of being abused and neglected by my biological parents. It’s always been a struggle for me.”
His adopted (real) parents were supportive, loving and got him the therapy he needed, but he knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
“I’m so incredibly happy that (the Hope Center) is open and that we’re going to be making an impact on these children that are here now,” he said, who received a standing ovation from the crowd.
The $1.7 million facility operates outside the legal/foster care system, accepting referrals from Child Protective Services, other child health care providers, and any parent/guardian seeking help. Typical health care plans and medicaid covers trauma assessments and therapy sessions and for those that may not be able to afford it, a discounted fee system and small endowment have been set up, said Annette Rodriguez, Children’s Shelter president and CEO. “We will not turn anyone away … 40% of children who are abused will grow up to be abusers themselves. So if we don’t get to the root cause with the right interventions, we are never going to change that statistic.”
While there are plenty of good therapists and care facilities available in San Antonio, the Hope Center is the first hub for therapy finely tuned for the needs of abused and neglected children.
“One of the challenges for the Children’s Shelter and for other providers like us is that there aren’t enough mental health providers who can provide services to children who can help them heal from trauma that they’ve experienced,” she said, adding the phone has been ringing off the hook, even from parents as far away as Kansas. “Traditionally children who have been abused, abandoned, neglected, go and receive therapy from very good counselors, but … there are interventions created specifically to eradicate (child abuse) and the therapies that we’re going to be providing are specific to these traumas.”
Inside the Hope Center, children and their families are greeted with vibrant colors and cozy seating arrangements.
“We (didn’t want) a clinical setting,” Rodriguez said while guests toured the 4,500 sq. ft. facility. “Clinical settings typically shut children down, it creates more anxiety … we wanted it to look like a living room so they’ll feel relaxed, they’ll feel comfortable. That’s when true relationships are forged and true healing can take place.”
The center is starting out with eight staff members, but will be complimented by students from University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA).
“Our (clinical psychiatric) residents will also be training here on trauma therapy and providing psychiatric care to the children (and families) at the center,” said Training Director for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UTHSCSA Dr. Brigitte Bailey, who will serve as the medical director for the Hope Center.
The other star of the show on Wednesday was Harvey E. Najim, a local philanthropist known for his generosity to children’s charities, who was easily convinced by Rodriguez to join in the fundraising effort. He recognized that someone needs to intervene in the cycle of child abuse – and its all too common symptoms of unemployment, drug use, and crime – to address the problem at its root. It starts with a child getting the care they need to become healthy, productive members of society.
“The children at this center will receive tailored intervention that will help them take back their childhood and sense of control and provide families with resources and support to help them through their journey,” said Najim, whose family foundation donated $1 million to the Hope Center’s construction and programming.
More than 5,400 victims of child abuse and neglect were confirmed in Bexar County last year and 17 of those children died, he said and listed of more startling statistics about abused children who are:
- More likely to fall behind a grade in school and develop clinical level behavioral problems
- 75% of all high school dropouts are victims of abuse
- 59% are more likely to be arrested as a juvenile
- 25% are more likely to become a teen parent
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “Untreated child traumatic stress contributes to many of the most pressing problems that individuals and communities face, including poverty, crime, low academic achievement, addiction, mental health problems, and poor health outcomes. The cost of these problems is felt not only in human terms, but also in dollars and cents, affecting future generations as well. As an example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the total lifetime estimated cost associated with one year of confirmed cases of child maltreatment alone is approximately $124 billion.”
Najim said the cost is $34,815 per victimized child per year and Bexar County spent almost $190 million last year.
“We must do whatever it takes to solve this problem and prevent any child from being abused or neglected,” he said.
The Hope Center sits on 10 acres of land, next the the Children’s Center at 2939 W. Woodlawn, so there is plenty of room to grow, Rodriguez said.
Children’s Shelter Board Chair Gary Woods said he hopes that someday the need for such facilities will disappear.
“If I had my way … we’d be dedicating the tearing down of this building,” Woods said.
*Top image: The Harvey E. Najim Hope Center. Photo by Iris Dimmick.