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Sonoma County receives $1 million grant to expand post-disaster mental health services for children

A federally funded project is underway in west Sonoma County to help thousands of local students respond to trauma caused by years of wildfires and flooding, launching what could be a pilot program for rehabilitating children in other parts of the country.

Nine west county school districts will soon begin mental health screenings for up to 5,000 students thanks to a $1 million federal grant, helping educators explore how best to care for children who have experienced multiple natural disasters and traumatic events.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is funding training that will equip at least 25 school psychologists and local counselors with tools to detect hidden symptoms of trauma and special forms of therapy to treat it.

Information collected during the one-year program will be included in a study by UCLA and Drexel University that could shape how communities recover after future disasters, according to the Sonoma County Office of Education, which is overseeing the local effort.

Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools, said a one-year grant isn’t long enough to address the issue, but it can at least create new systems for communities that have endured one destructive event after another.

“Our county has experienced more multiple traumas than any other student population in California,” Herrington said. “This grant helps us address that growing need.”

The county education office applied for the grant last year after a three-day rainstorm in late February pushed the Russian River past its highest level since 1995, submerging Guerneville and flooding several other communities along its banks.

Guerneville School District Superintendent Dana Pedersen said 40 families at her schools were displaced during the flood. Many more are still recovering from its impacts and are now facing the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has created additional economic hardships.

The grant provides the infrastructure to better address the mental health challenges in her community, Pedersen said, especially among children where the effects of those traumas have yet to emerge.

“We have a year to make some services (available), and at the state level, the eyes are on this grant,” she said. “This can be a gold standard as what mental and behavioral services looks like for families in crisis.”

In addition to Guerneville, Monte Rio, Forestville, Harmony, Fort Ross, Oak Grove, Sebastopol, Twin Hills and the West Sonoma County Union High School District are included in the project.

Training is expected to begin over the next few weeks for the west county staffers who signed up, although some professional development will be available for counselors in other parts of the county, said Mandy Corbin, assistant superintendent of special education and behavioral health services for the county education office.

Dr. Judith Cohen, a renowned child psychiatrist and Drexel professor, will lead the training and help pass along two different methods for mental health screening, Corbin said. Cohen will also teach a form of trauma-focused behavioral therapy she helped develop that equips children and their parents with skills for managing symptoms.

The screenings will begin next month and most likely will be done over the phone, Corbin said. No child will be tested without a parent’s consent.

“After this we will have a universal screening tool in place so we don’t miss anyone,” Corbin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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