Every second Thursday of the month, you’re most likely to see the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s main lecture space packed with social workers, case managers, mental health care providers, and a bevy of other professionals. They are regular attendees of the Lunch and Learn Seminar Series provided by the Vanderbilt Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody (COE). The Kennedy Center has co-sponsored the series for three years by providing a location to present as well as by facilitating live streaming the seminars to offices statewide.
The Vanderbilt COE is part of a statewide network funded under an agreement with the State of Tennessee to improve public health by enhancing the quality of services provided to children who are in or are at risk of entering the Tennessee child welfare or juvenile justice systems. Children and families involved with these child-serving systems are at increased likelihood of having developmental, physical, or psychiatric disabilities, and of having had adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.
Leading the Vanderbilt COE as director is Jon S. Ebert, Psy.D., associate professor of Clinical Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.
“The Vanderbilt COE is within the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences,” Ebert said. “We are funded by TennCare and the Department of Children’s Services to be their academic partner regarding consultation and evaluation of at-risk kids and families. That ‘academic partner’ term captures what we do. Our faculty and staff strive to provide the highest quality consultation and training to systems serving at-risk cases. We equip these systems with best practices for treatment and intervention, and we provide training statewide around evidence-based practices. We also provide training and support for other quality improvement projects for the state.”
The collaboration between the VKC and the Vanderbilt COE began three years ago when former COE director Richard Epstein approached Elise McMillan, J.D., co-director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, and Jan Rosemergy, Ph.D., VKC deputy director, about a partnership.
“One of the things that we liked about partnering with the Kennedy Center was the commonality in the dissemination of evidence-based practices and best practices for kids,” said Ebert. “Before then, we were holding our Lunch & Learn lectures in a local church. I think that, through some conversations and a shared vision to make trainings and best practices accessible, the Kennedy Center was just a natural partner. Of course, we had already known about the resources the Kennedy Center had for developmental disabilities and the research opportunities that they bring. Our at-risk kids and the trainings that we could provide through the VKC were a natural fit.”
Since the Vanderbilt COE’s monthly lectures moved to the VKC event space in One Magnolia Circle Building, the number of those able to access these trainings has grown exponentially.
“The VKC has really helped us take our trainings from a local level, when only those in the Nashville area could come, to live streaming all across the state of Tennessee,” said Ebert. “The partnership has really been about helping us utilize the expertise that the VKC has around leveraging technology to reach people.”
With the increase in attendees also came an increase in diversity, an element Ebert celebrates.
“Typically, our demographics are mostly child welfare professionals and leadership. In fact, all of our streaming audiences are from Departments of Children’s Services across the state. Then there’s a mix of attendees who are therapists and mental health professionals who are school-based, as well as community mental health therapists. We get a lot of advocates through the courts or legal services, or those who manage care, and then some students who are wanting to learn more. Sometimes we get a few foster parents as well.
“The vision of the Lunch and Learns is not just about providing training but also bringing systems together,” Ebert continued. “We really think that when people get in the same room together and learn the same information together, it helps the system have a shared language and conversation and understanding of what should be done for kids. We really like that diversity of professionals who serve kids.”
The topics covered each month range from mindfulness to trauma work, and everything in between. Subjects are primarily chosen based on feedback given each month by Lunch & Learn attendees on satisfaction surveys. Vanderbilt COE leadership also reaches out to leaders within the Department of Children’s Services Middle Tennessee region to see what topics are relevant to DCS staff at the moment.
“We also ask ourselves, ‘What do we see emerging in the field?’ For example, we recently held a lecture on self-care and wellness, which is a pretty common request, especially coming out of the Winter holidays,” said Ebert. “We try to match the topics with timing. We also try to provide training and research opportunities for our [Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences] students to present. We’ve had students who’ve presented on human trafficking and stress interventions with parents, all based on their training in our clinic.”
Among the clinical services that the Vanderbilt COE provides to children in or at risk of entering state custody are case consultation and case review, psychological testing, psychiatric evaluation, and psychiatric medication management. Referral questions may include physical health, development, mental health, medication, or placement issues.
“We’re funded to work with kids who are in custody or are at risk of going into custody, so any time there’s a case where a child’s mental health or behavioral concerns put the child at risk of being in the juvenile justice or child welfare system, we try to support and intervene. Our area of expertise is in helping systems,” said Ebert. “We really try to build safety around the child and use our expertise to help those systems work on a common plan and goal together. I don’t think that can be understated.
“A lot of times, these kids and families are going through a lot of adversity, and sometimes the systems themselves can respond in a way where you’ve got multiple people working from different angles and agendas. The service the Vanderbilt Center of Excellence provides to our kids is getting systems to work together around the specific needs of the child, and that’s rare. A lot of kids don’t have that level of service coordination, and we are glad we can provide that in our clinic.”
For more information about the Vanderbilt Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody or to make a referral, call (615) 322-8701 or (866) 263-8263 (toll free).
Elizabeth Turner is associate program manager for VKC Communications.