Grassroots program teams up with Frederick County, Maryland public schools to address adverse childhood experiences.
About the Collaboration
In 1988, Julie Wood Merchant, a licensed clinical art therapist, founded Kids Like Us to help support Frederick County, Maryland children exposed to alcohol and other drug abuse at home. The program began with a call from one school counselor. “She was seeking help for students whose lives were being dramatically and adversely impacted by parents and caregivers using and becoming addicted to crack cocaine. Their grades and spirits were plummeting,” Wood Merchant says. “This opened a door to partner with schools to support children affected by substance abuse.” Today, Kids Like Us serves more than 200 fourth through eighth graders each year.
Kids Like Us operates within the Frederick County Health Department Behavioral Health Services Division with funding through SAMHSA’s Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment (SAPT) Block Grant. Implemented in 26 schools across the county, this school-based program and its arts-integrated summer day camp offer students impacted by familial substance abuse a safe and confidential way to receive the help they need. In sessions co-led by a school counselor and licensed program counselor, participants engage in skill-based lessons, peer support, and expressive art experiences designed to help them handle their feelings in safe ways and make healthy choices about relationships, alcohol, and other drugs. A parent letter and classroom presentation on substance use disorders, recovery, and the impact of substance misuse on families for all fourth graders in participating schools also play a key role in helping to change attitudes and norms related to substance misuse.
“Our goal is to break the cycle of addiction,” says program evaluator Jessica Snell-Johns, a clinical-community psychologist. “The program is rooted in trauma-informed care to support children impacted by loss [of a parent or other family member]—whether due to incarceration, overdose, or emotional absence. Complications for the children often stem from loss that nobody recognizes. The structure, content, and processes of the program are designed, at its heart, to serve a population of children who are grieving silently."
In recent years, the program has adapted to the changing substance misuse prevention landscape—working with schools that are increasingly serving children adversely affected by the opioid crisis and other emerging drug trends. For example, when discussing the concept of “mood-changing drugs,” counselors cover issues related to opioids, e-cigarettes, and synthetic marijuana. The program also connects students and families with overdose response training and naloxone, provided by the health department. School and program counselors also reach out beyond the group sessions to attend funerals in support of youth participants.
Wood Merchant attributes the program’s longevity to the strong collaborative relationships the health department and program staff have built with the county’s school system. “Collaborating school counselors drive program success and provide the majority of our referrals. They also sustain the program in their local schools,” says Wood Merchant.
The collaboration benefits the school system, as well. “These school counselors are a direct pipeline between the schools and other mental health specialists,” Wood Merchant says. “School counselors educate teachers, staff, students, and parents about the effects of substance use disorders in the family, offer resources, and help destigmatize the disease.”
Kids Like Us has also forged close relationships with multiple stakeholders across the community. These connections help to get the word out about the program and establish its credibility. They also help to ensure continuity in care. For example, program staff work closely with the Frederick County Mental Health Association’s case management service, which assists families and children with more complex behavior, development, school, health, or mental health needs. “We recognize that many of our students have needs beyond the scope of our program,” says Wood Merchant. “In these cases, it’s important that we’ve built the community connections needed to ensure that these needs are addressed.”
Elements of Success
Find Program Champions
Kids Like Us works with Janet Shipman, Coordinator of Counseling and Student Support for Frederick County Public Schools, to identify a core set of school counselors willing to help support their peers across the system and implement the program for the first time. "We do a pre-Kids Like Us orientation session with prospective counselors,” Wood Merchant says. “Experienced school counselors share their implementation tips, stories of successful outcomes with individuals and families, and breakthroughs they’ve seen in their students. Having this team of champions, led by Janet, has been integral in reaching more schools and students."
Identify Shared Goals
When engaging potential new school counselors and administrators, Wood Merchant and her team focus on shared goals. They readily acknowledge that participation requires a significant time commitment, and that addressing the effects of parental substance misuse isn’t easy. But they also highlight how the program directly supports the school counselors’ mission. “Kids Like Us supplements schools’ existing mental health resources by bringing expertise in substance misuse prevention and a network of referral services directly to them,” Wood Merchant says.
Build a Sense of Community
Kids Like Us provides an initial training for school counselors new to the program, followed by an annual training for all school counselors collaborating with the program. These gatherings provide an important opportunity for staff to collectively address challenges, celebrate successes, and build a sense of camaraderie and community. “They update one another on the accomplishments of students they have had in common and connect with other school counselors that are involved,” says Wood Merchant. “They also discuss challenges. This supports and encourages continued commitment to collaboration with the program.”
Make Referrals Easy
Over 30 years, Kids Like Us has developed and streamlined its confidential referral process. “We’ve tried to make referring a student an easy, accessible process,” Wood Merchant explains. To that end, the program offers multiple referral options. “Interested individuals can obtain information and a referral form online and submit it through encrypted email, fax, or the mail. We encourage referral sources to contact us by phone as well. We don’t want potential technology roadblocks to prevent people from reaching out.”
Engage the Broader Community
The Kids Like Us team understands that addressing the needs of individual children is just one part of the prevention puzzle. That’s why they also dedicate time to raising awareness and shaping community norms related to substance misuse and families struggling with addiction. The program does this mainly through its annual public art reception and exhibit, which celebrates the artwork and accomplishments of its summer art day camp participants. Youth artwork is exhibited annually at the Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center in September and the Frederick County Health Department auditorium October through April. Last year, the show reached an estimated 1,500 community members and was publicized weekly in the Frederick News-Post. Even Maryland’s First Lady, Yumi Hogan, visited the art show. The next Kids Like Us art show debuts this fall, with the public invited to the opening reception on October 3, 2018. The exhibit has attracted media attention, giving voice to the toll substance misuse takes on families and children, while promoting community dialogue about hope and healing for them.
In the 2018–2019 school year, Kids Like Us celebrates 30 years of partnering with Frederick County Public Schools to reach thousands of children who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks. The program has grown steadily throughout the years, recently launching a pilot program that extended services through grade 12. “We had a group of eighth graders who wanted to continue into high school and a high school with the capacity to work with us on the pilot project,” Wood Merchant says. Plans to expand into a second high school in the 2018–2019 school year are in progress.
Findings from program evaluations have been consistently positive. In 2017, participating school counselors reported that Kids Like Us helped students do better in school and make new friends, helped school counselors identify children at risk for suicide, and facilitated linkages to individual therapy, as needed. An independent evaluation found that student participants experienced reduced isolation and increased support; reduced worry, sadness, and anger; better focus; and a unique opportunity to receive peer support. A longitudinal evaluation study, began in 2010, is still underway.1
The program has also garnered national attention: The National Association of State Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Directors (NASADAD) named Kids Like Us a 2017 winner of the National Exemplary Awards for Innovative Substance Abuse Prevention Programs, Practices, and Policies. NASADAD applauded the program’s implementation methods, which “are directly informed by research-based prevention principles including protective factors, social-emotional skills, peer supports, early identification and intervention, and arts integration.”2
As they look to the future, Kids Like Us hopes to help other counties to replicate the program. “When we started this, we had no idea we were creating something that would last more than a couple of years,” Wood Merchant says. “There’s a magic and energy when people want to do something. The Kids Like Us staff have certainly worked hard, but it’s not just us. It is also the synergy of the many stakeholders working together that has created the possibility for continued growth.”
For more information, please visit the Kids Like Us website.
1. Kids Like Us — Prevention Program (Maryland) video. (14 September 2017.) Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=149&v=j6XT1Lz35c8
2. The National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, Inc. Previous Exemplary Award Winners: 2003-2017. (September 2017.) Available at http://nasadad.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Previous-Exemplary-Award-Winners-2003-2017.pdf