The rolling hills and valleys surrounding Intermountain Children's Home (ICH) provide this 40-acre campus with a sense of seclusion that belies its proximity to the heart of Montana's capital city, Helena. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood on the outskirts of town, the grounds include four nicely maintained and comfortably furnished residential cottages that house eight children each. The four cottages encircle a spacious grass lawn where a number of young residents were playing "pitch and catch" with staff during our visit. The campus setting is made complete by an administration building, and a separate academic/recreation/therapy complex.
ICH was founded in 1909 as a home for children with no where else to go. Today, under the direction of Executive Director Jim Fitzgerald, the facility provides residential treatment for 32 boys and girls between the ages of 4 to 11 at admission.
On this particular day, Lon Woodbury and I were honored to accompany Dr. Bruce Perry for a tour of the facility. We watched as Dr. Perry effortlessly joined with the bright-eyed youngsters, who were pleased to swap stories, jokes and giggles with him over a picnic lunch. There was such a level of gaiety that it was easy to forget these delightful children struggle daily with significant treatment issues. Many of the children never adequately bonded with their parents due to trauma, neglect and/or adoption issues. Most are considered "clinically complex." All must learn to become more comfortable in close, loving relationships in order to grow.
Admissions Director Tina Johnson explained that the admissions process at ICH typically takes three to five weeks. It generally includes a pre-admission home visit, during which an ICH staff member assesses family dynamics and takes a detailed history. ICH strongly encourages (but does not require) parents of prospective residents to visit their campus. The final decision regarding appropriateness falls to Elizabeth Kohlstaedt, PhD, Clinical Director.
We were informed that ICH serves a moderate to severe population of children carrying diagnoses including Reactive Attachment Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and/or Bipolar Disorder, among others. ICH rules out children who present with a high run risk or has an IQ below 70 or active sexual perpetration issues. Their population may include children with a capacity for violent behavior, fire setting or a history of sexual reactivity.
Each ICH therapists carries a caseload of eight children. Because other staff assume case management responsibilities, the clinicians can be highly child and family focused.
ICH's treatment model is grounded in attachment philosophy, which stresses the healing power of relationships. For some children who missed the experience of early nurturing, regressive interventions such as bottle feeding may be provided. The staff often rock the children and read them stories. There is an ever-present emphasis on nurturing with a “family team dynamic” created through a sense of surrogate family that is carefully developed and closely supervised.
Tina Johnson explained that ICH considers each cottage's team to be a surrogate family. The "family team" meets weekly to gain support from one another and ask for help when needed. They also discuss how team members were parented, so that their personal experiences can come forward in a clean and empathic manner. The weekly meetings are facilitated by the cottage therapist and provide a safe place to resolve staff conflict, thus permitting the family dynamic to grow ever closer. By facilitating healthy relationships among cottage staff, ICH promotes a culture of cleaner and healthier relationships between staff members and children.
While each cottage's "family team" holds much of the power of treatment due to the primary relationships found there, the children at ICH also receive individual, group and family therapy as needed. Clinical services are informed by neurobiological research such as that of Dr. Bruce Perry who visited when we did.
ICH residents attend school year-round. Special education teachers share a unified agency philosophy of treatment, assuring that educational needs are met in a manner consistent with each child's overall treatment goals.
While touring the academic complex, we found clean, spacious, state of the art classrooms enriched by science projects and children's art. Of course they also had the obligatory collection of captive frogs, fish and other creepy crawlers that serve to bring indoors a reminder of the vast Montana wilderness.
In addition to meeting the children's clinical and educational needs, ICH sponsors a Chaplain's Program to support the children's spiritual needs. Each week, the Chaplain holds an optional Children's Fellowship that features singing, Bible stories, games and prayer.
As our visit to this impressive treatment center drew to a close, Lon and I took in the vast Montana "Big Sky," enjoyed a few deep breaths of crisp, clean air and an imprint of the scenic natural beauty that is still Montana.