Just as a child’s health can be impacted by living with no heat or water, trauma and toxic stress can damage health and curtail productive lives, says Andrew Hsi, MD, director of the newly created UNM Health Sciences Center Institute for Resilience, Health and Justice.
In an innovative new program, the institute will work with UNM School of Law graduates to help at-risk families navigate social and economic hardships that may be creating stress and impeding their health, said Hsi.
The venture is possible through a $2.65 million W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant recently awarded to the UNM School of Law to address unmet legal needs that harm the health and well-being of children and families living in poverty. Attorneys specializing in family and child law will work alongside medical staff in providing family interventions. Their tasks will be custom tailored to their assigned clinics and communities, said Hsi.
Hsi, a professor of pediatrics within the UNM School of Medicine, emphasized that resilient people can experience tremendous trauma and toxic stress, yet still go onward to lead healthy, productive lives.
“Kids and families are capable of taking really hard blows, painful experiences that hurt them a lot,” he said. “Yet, with help, they overcome those experiences and then go on to lead healthy and productive lives, doing good for themselves and their communities.”
For many, having a legal representative when dealing with a utility or landlord makes all the difference, he said.
“We’ve found that having a law student or lawyer with a patient as they try to solve a problem can totally change the chemistry in a room. The attorneys cut through a lot of noise,” Hsi said.
He has been using intervention groups with at-risk families since he and Sally Bachofer, MD, developed the first “Family Focused Medical Home” model of care in the 1990s. The program focused on early interventions that can impact health, such as home visits, classes in parenting, child rearing, nutrition and early development.
He said he became aware of the need for legal aid at that time while working with parents of adult children with drug issues. In many cases, he found the parents faced obstacles raising the grandchildren because they did not have legal standing or the funds to hire an attorney and obtain formal custody.
With the new institute, Hsi expects each clinic to customize services and resources provided to families. He held a series of focus groups this spring to hear from various audiences and on community concerns.
“We know this will fill a serious need,” said Hsi.
“We see it all the time. Parents will come into the clinics. They know they did not receive the support they needed as children that would have reduced toxic stress levels and changed the course of their own lives. They became involved in drugs and then had children. Now they want their child’s life to be completely different. Providing these types of interventions can become the turning point for the entire family,” said Hsi. “We see tremendous changes. We see the parents moving toward a healthier life at the same time their children are growing toward healthier development.”