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Research in Action: Helping Homeless Children

Psychologist Mary Haskett has been doing research on childhood development for over 20 years, and her experiences in that field ultimately highlighted a real and growing mental-health crisis facing homeless children around the country. Now she’s calling on her research expertise to do something about it.

News Channel 14 recently ran a story about Project CATCH.

Haskett, a professor in NC State’s Psychology Department, is working with eight homeless shelters in central North Carolina to develop a system that will provide mental-health services to children in homeless families. The system should provide new data on effective strategies for addressing mental-health concerns in homeless kids – and may serve as a model for similar efforts nationally. Dubbed Project CATCH (Community Action Targeting Children who are Homeless), the initiative is funded by the John Rex Endowment and will be overseen by the Salvation Army.

“The circumstances that lead to homelessness, such as substance abuse and domestic violence, also put kids at risk of mental-health problems – including depression and anxiety,” Haskett says. “And there are myriad challenges in recognizing and providing treatment for homeless children with mental-health problems: the families are moving frequently, they don’t have health insurance, there’s often a lack of transportation. Hopefully, Project CATCH can help these kids from slipping through the cracks.”

This is not an insignificant problem. In 2005-06, it was estimated that 1 in 50 U.S. children was homeless.

Haskett explains that providing mental-health treatment is particularly problematic for children under the age of five. Federal law provides some resources that support the mental health of homeless children once those children are enrolled in school, but younger kids aren’t covered by the law.

This leaves those younger kids at higher risk for long-term mental-health problems, because research indicates that the first five years of life are a critical period for social and emotional development.

Project CATCH incorporates a number of steps designed to help address this problem. The initiative will include system-wide training for shelter staff to increase awareness of children’s mental health. The project will identify mental-health professionals in the community who will prioritize treatment for homeless children, and provide transportation so that the kids can attend treatment sessions. Parents will be offered in-shelter support to help them foster safe, stable and nurturing relationships with their children.

The project will also create a computerized network that will allow the participating shelters to share information on the children’s specific needs and treatment plans, so there will be continuity of care for these kids as they move from shelter to shelter and into transitional housing.

Ultimately, the project will also generate data to help our understanding of how best to meet the mental-health needs of homeless children. “We will be evaluating outcomes in terms of improved mental-health functioning in the children,” Haskett says, “as well as evaluating stress levels in parents and improvements in parenting skills.”

Ideally, the project will also serve as a blueprint that can be replicated elsewhere. Project CATCH is already working with the National Center for Family Homelessness (NCFH), which will help the project with shelter staff training and program evaluation. If the project is successful, NCFH can help share the program with communities nationwide.

by Matt Shipman, NC State News Services. This article originally appeared in NC State’s Abstract.