As executive director of clinical innovation and technology for Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth (SAFY), Ryann Vernetson drives best practices and clinical innovation through SAFY’s seven states while identifying technological solutions
to increase efficiency and ensure that clinicians spend more time with families and children—and less time behind a computer. She is passionate about multigenerational, trauma-effective services and started SAFY of Colorado with a colleague in 2014. She is an animal-assisted canine therapist, partnered with a three-year-old canine named Savannah.
Ascent: What are the top three trends you’re seeing in effective treatment modalities for youth and family who have experienced trauma?
Vernetson: We’re seeing animal-assisted intervention or therapy as a vehicle for effective treatment with both individuals as well as families. It can be powerful, especially for people who have tried therapy before but didn’t find it effective.
Especially for people who have been harmed by other people, it can be hard to enter a therapy space and trust a stranger. We can facilitate a trusting relationship between a canine and a client with a therapist present. When we start the relationship there, and give people the opportunity to be successful, we see that trust generalized to the provider over time.
Another trend we’re noticing is multi-generational treatment, because it acknowledges that oftentimes, trauma has been experienced throughout multiple generations. If we only focus on one person in a family, sometimes we’re truncating that treatment experience. We’re looking for a whole-family healing experience. The state of Colorado has acknowledged this; 2Generation Opportunities (2Go) is a two-generational approach to treatment that prioritizes wellness for families in Colorado.
Finally, we’re really seeing effectiveness in using models focused on both the caregiver and child coming together for improved wellness in their family—the Attachment, Regulation and Competency (ARC) model in particular. This child and caregiver approach thoughtfully addresses the impact of prolonged traumatic stress, so that they entire family system can heal and thrive in the future.
Ascent: From your perspective, what’s the importance in terms of efficacy around in-home services?
Vernetson: We know, especially for families, that no one exists in isolation. We get a really clear sense in the home setting of all the interactions that can contribute to that person’s wellbeing. It allows us to more broadly address the challenges a family is facing that we wouldn’t see if we were only seeing them in the office. We try to really do the work where it’s needed, and sometimes that’s in the home or the school setting or in the community.
The impact of trauma can be fairly broad, and sometimes when people are living in crisis, the part of their brain that helps them plan ahead can be compromised because the brain is focused on living in the moment. They may have a hard time planning to get to an office because their brain is directing them to just get through today. When we’re able to eliminate the transportation or other logistical barriers to treatment, it allows families to more easily access treatment.
We also serve people for whom transportation itself can be a barrier. If you think of a parent with four children who has to take a 30-minute bus ride to get treatment, that can deter people from getting the care that they need as well.
Ascent: What would you like to share about innovative work SAFY is doing to tie treatment to outcomes?
Vernetson: Often, the families we serve have tried treatment approaches that didn’t work, and they feel like they’ve failed or there’s nothing that can help their family. We have a treatment philosophy and practices that really drive increased engagement with families, and we have a high engagement rate; only about 10 percent of our appointments are canceled. We believe there are a couple of things that drive it.
The first is voice and choice. We don’t have a model that requires people to always come to an office, and we have very flexible working hours. A lot of our appointments happen after 5 p.m., which is helpful for the family. We truly listen to what families need and do our best to honor those needs in treatment.
Also, we are very transparent, and when the practitioner and family don’t agree, we’re able to resolve that instead of watching the family disengage from treatment. We really believe the family is the change agent, so by engaging them every step of the way and asking them for feedback, they feel honored and believe the service is a good use of their time.
Another engagement component is our focus on resiliency—the ability to bounce back. Increasing resiliency is the best way to mitigate trauma symptoms. We believe this drives positive outcomes for children and their families. By focusing as much on resiliency as problem areas, we can assist individuals in finding the incredible resource and strength that lives within them.
The multi-generational focus is also a core component of what we do. We believe a lot of the favorable outcomes families experience is because we’re engaging whoever they consider to be family. If Aunt Martha, who takes care of Jimmy three days a week, or a teacher or family friend is willing, then we engage them to be part of the alliance with the family to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Finally, we consider ourselves to be a trauma-effective agency. That means we know about trauma, we understand how it affects families and youth, and we select interventions and treatment approaches that are effective. We are dedicated to a continuous quality improvement process, so that families can benefit from the best services to address all that they have experienced.