Marans counsels Katrina refugees

As families left homeless and helpless by Hurricane Katrina arrive in New Haven, they need more than simply beds, food and clothes. They must also begin recovering from the psychological trauma inflicted by the storm — a process that Steven Marans, associate director of Yale’s National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, has been charged with facilitating.

“These are folks who are coming with very little,” Marans said. “So one of the first things we want to do in terms of helping them get settled in the New Haven area, if only for a while or maybe more permanently, is to get a sense of who they are and what they need.”

Marans is part of a larger team assembled by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. to help settle up to 100 displaced Gulf Coast families in public housing units. While the businessmen and bankers on DeStefano’s team will guide adults in sorting out their financial lives, Marans and his coworkers are charged with the task of helping both children and adults sort out their emotional lives after the crisis — a role that Marans has played time and time again.

Marans, the author of books such as “Listening to Fear: Helping Kids Cope, From Nightmares to the Nightly News,” has always emphasized the importance of hearing what children have to say to help them work through whatever traumas they have experienced. He applied that theory in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks (though he had been using it long before that), during which he wrote numerous articles and spoke about how best to help children cope.

“Perhaps the most important issue is that children need to have adults who are available to listen to what is on their minds,” Marans said in a Sept. 13, 2001 interview with CNN. “That is the greatest importance that teachers and parents are able to demonstrate to children that they can tolerate hearing about all sorts of ideas and strong feelings.”

Marans’ work is not only affecting victims who have sought refuge in New Haven. His theories are being applied throughout the country and, in some cases, throughout the world, Alan Kazdin, director of the Child Studies Center at Yale, said.

“His work is in the Yale way,” Kazdin said. “Essentially it’s not just his work, but he’s setting a model for helping the country on how to respond to crises … The Yale way is interesting: it’s not just to do great work, but it is to do great work that serves as a national and international model.”

Marans is using a structure that assigns each family to a case manager to discuss individual situations, he said. After that, each person will go through a brief screening process to determine whether children and adults are experiencing symptoms derived from the trauma of the hurricane.

But Marans and his team face many variables of uncertainty when dealing with the hurricane victims. Not only do they not know who is coming, he said, but they also do not know what traumas the children may have faced.

“It’s the idea of talking,” Marans said. “The idea is not about offering everybody counseling. The idea is first figuring out who the folks are and what their needs are, including the extent to which they have experienced psychological difficulties.”

Although drawing individuals, especially young children, out of their shells and enabling them to discuss their emotions is a daunting task, Marans said he has the experience necessary to succeed.

“We see children and families every day of the week who are affected by terrible events in their lives and tragedies and losses,” he said. “We have learned a lot about ways to engage children and adults in ways that are not threatening or intrusive, and help them to organize their thoughts and feelings in a way that enables them to take the next step.”

The mayor’s office was equally confident that Marans’ capabilities would be a great asset in making this project work. Derek Slap, New Haven’s director of public information, said Marans was the clear choice for the job, especially because many of the people expected to come to New Haven are single-parent families with kids who are suddenly forced to relocate.

“[Marans] has experience obviously running the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence,” Slap said. “His credentials are impeccable, really unparalleled … He was an ideal person to deal with this in the community.”

Kazdin also highlighted the unique nature of the program Marans had developed.

“He involves the community and professional knowledge so they come together, and you have teachers and parents and scientists working on trauma and stress, and clinicians and the police department brought together in an educational forum that is realistic and well-grounded,” Kazdin said. “It’s the best science and the best thinking involved with people in the trenches. Put it all together and you have something that’s an amazing integration.”

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