On a typical night of work, Dan LaCroix's cell phone will flash in the dark of his South Side home. He'll hear the urgent voice of a police officer at the scene of a violent crime. A short while later, he'll pull up to the scene. He'll grab a tattered messenger bag from the passenger seat of his small pickup and navigate past yellow tape to the front door.
Beyond overturned furniture and broken glass, LaCroix might spot a small child shaking in the corner of the living room. He'll pull a coloring book out of his bag and kneel to the child's level. "I'm here to help," he'll say calmly, offering the child some crayons. Amid the buzz of detectives and emergency medical technicians, the two will move to the kitchen table and begin to color together.
"At these scenes, the priorities are: Take care of the injured person. Get the bad guy," LaCroix says. "The kids are along for the ride."
As trauma response program manager for ChildSavers, the nonprofit Richmond-area mental health agency, 33-year-old LaCroix is one of five clinicians who provide 24/7 response and counseling services for children exposed to violence and other traumatic events. Since launching in 2004, the program has provided immediate services to more than 2,200 children ranging from infants to 17-year-olds. The staff of clinical social workers and a child psychiatrist provides treatment for children and adolescents regardless of ability to pay, accepting all Medicaid HMOs and working with those who don't have insurance.
"We know that the immediacy of addressing trauma is critical for long-term recovery," says Robert Bolling, who became chief executive officer at ChildSavers in October. Founded in 1924 as the Children's Memorial Clinic, the community-supported program provides clinical treatment, outpatient therapy, childhood development services and more. Bolling, formerly executive director of the William Byrd Community House, replaced Mark Hierholzer, who retired after 25 years of service.
"The short-term objective is to make sure that every child who experiences or witnesses trauma has access to mental health services in the acute situation," he says. "The first thing on my list is to eliminate our wait list [for nonemergency appointments] and then to begin to talk to the public about the work that we do and to offer our model out to other communities."
As a student in the Master of Social Work program at Virginia Commonwealth University, LaCroix interned at the Powhatan Correctional Center and worked with adolescents who had substance abuse problems. "I was seeing [that] a lot of these kids and adults had trauma in their history, and it occurred to me, ‘What would've happened if they'd been helped when they were younger?' "
Immediately after graduating in 2007, LaCroix started working as one of the trauma response clinicians at ChildSavers.
A licensed clinical social worker who has an undergraduate degree in studio art, he provides comfort at crime scenes and offers art, play and talk therapy at the nonprofit's outpatient clinic for up to a year afterward.
"An image I always have is taking a ship into a calm harbor when there's a storm," LaCroix says. "The storm is still raging, but we're trying to create some reassurance and safety for that person and normalize the reaction they might be having to the event."
Research by Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that between 3.3 million and 10 million children witness domestic violence annually. "The research [says] very clearly that the sooner you engage the child, the better," Bolling says, citing poor academic performance, sleeping difficulties and increased aggression as just a few of the problems that arise as a direct result of a traumatic event at a young age.
As CEO, Bolling wants to expand the ChildSavers model beyond the Richmond region. "Violence pervades our society. It's not just children in the city of Richmond, he says. "The blend of this mental health and child development service model is something that is needed in many communities through the state."
Clinicians in ChildSavers' trauma re-sponse program work with about 450 Richmond children a year. LaCroix says about half the children he sees on the scene continue with 12- to 24-week counseling services. "It can be painful to talk about trauma, but there's a lot of inspiring moments, too,"
he says. "There's a lot of hope in working with children."