The Oklahoman: Oklahoma camp offers help for childhood trauma victims

By Kayla Branch
Published: July 1, 2018


A police siren blares, blue and red lights flash, a horn honks and voices yell over an intercom at a northeast Oklahoma campground.

Children ages 7 to 16 lean against the parked police car and pose for pictures while some crawl through the seats. The car is part of a law enforcement demonstration at Camp Hope, an annual weeklong camp for kids who have witnessed or been victims of domestic violence.

“A lot of the families that we have here that have been involved in domestic violence,” said Darren Ransley, a member of Camp Hope’s leadership staff. “Law enforcement are the people that take away a specific part of the family. Fear comes from that. If you have law enforcement here, you have the opportunity to create a relationship with a friendly law enforcement officer.”

The demonstration is one of many activities meant to help kids cope with the traumas they have endured. In fiscal year 2017, Oklahoma had 15,289 confirmed cases of child abuse — the highest rate in at least decade, according to a report by the Department of Human Services.

Childhood trauma has lasting effects on those who experience it, including higher rates of substance abuse, criminal behavior, poor physical health and a higher likelihood of becoming an abuser or a victim in adult relationships, said Chan Hellman, the director of OU’s Hope Research Center in Tulsa.

But Camp Hope, the only research and curriculum based camp in America for kids with trauma, is showing the tangible impact that hope can have on mitigating the repercussions of childhood trauma.

Sgt. Liz Herman talks with youths June 21 during Camp Hope in Chouteau. The camp is for children who have experienced trauma. [Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman]

Free to attend

Aleasha, a 17-year-old from Oklahoma City, has had to grow up quickly.

Born to parents who used drugs and neglected her, she was placed into an adoptive home when she was just a few months old. Since then, her adopted parents divorced, she endured a physically and emotionally abusive relationship and survived a rape.

She said she thought the pain of those experiences would never end. After going to different counseling sessions and mental health professionals, a teacher directed her to Camp Hope.

“It was hard,” she said. “I had to learn at such a young age that this is real life. This camp taught me that nobody has taken anything away from me. I still have the hope and the patience and the willingness to do something. I stay focused on that one thing until it gets done and then I move onto another. I take baby steps.”

Camp Hope operates nationally and is free to attend. In Oklahoma, the program, coordinated by Oklahoma City-based Palomar Family Justice Center, is in its third year of hosting the one-week summer camp near Tulsa.

It’s like most other summer camps with swimming, hiking and outdoor games. But throughout the day, campers talk about their hardships, listen to others share personal stories and read about noteworthy figures who overcame adversity to reach their goals, said Kellen Mack, a Palomar’s coordinator. At night, around a large campfire, campers reflect, focusing on resilience and where they saw hope that day.

In its first year, the Oklahoma City program hosted 29 campers. That number grew to 50 last year. This year, 62 campers attended, Ransley said. Many are repeat campers.

Since camp is relatively small, there is an emphasis on community and communication. Aleasha said one of the biggest coping tools she’s gained is the ability to express her emotions and talk through her feelings with others who have dealt with the same types of issues.

“Being around kids that have the same trauma as me, it makes me feel comfortable and more at peace,” she said. “I don’t think without Camp Hope I would be where I am today. I wouldn’t be as strong as I am and I wouldn’t be talking out my feelings like I do.”

Those who come to camp don’t have to meet a long list of requirements, but there is a careful vetting process, Ransley said.

The camp is for kids aged 7 to 16 who have dealt with trauma, particularly domestic violence, though most campers have been victims of multiple types of trauma. They have to have lived in a safe place for a long period of time and they also have to be able to control their actions since Camp Hope is nonviolent.

“I think it would be a very complicated world if we just opened the doors and said, “Hey everybody, come on in,” because we need to work with who we can really benefit the most,” Ransley said. “We want to make sure that we’ve got the right children in that space.”

A child uses the intercom on an Oklahoma City police car June 21 during Camp Hope in Chouteau. The camp is for children who have experienced trauma. [Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman]

Bad by many measures

The Palomar Family Justice Center in Oklahoma City has been open for roughly a year and a half, and the need has not slowed down.

Kim Garrett, president and CEO of Palomar, said the shelter is a one-stop resource shop for those affected by domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking and other abuses. At the start, there were only 15 partner agencies that provided services housed inside of the Palomar building, but today there are 27.

Palomar clients with children are given information on Camp Hope, Mack said.

“We want to make sure (the kids) are safe years on and that this doesn’t affect them later on in life,” she said.

Plenty of factors contribute to childhood trauma.

Oklahoma ranks first in the rate of incarceration of men and women, poverty is widespread, mental health and substance abuse issues are prevalent and domestic violence is also common, said Carrie Slatton-Hodges, deputy commission for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

All contribute to childhood trauma rates in Oklahoma that are higher than the national average, she said.

A popular way to gauge how many traumatic experiences a person had during childhood and how impactful those experiences will be on their future mental, physical and emotional health is the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, or ACE, Slatton-Hodges said.

The study asks 10 questions about a person’s childhood, including if they were ever hit or slapped, if their mother was ever treated violently, if a person in the home abused drugs or alcohol and if a relative was incarcerated.

The higher the ACE score, the more trauma endured and the greater chance of hardships down the line, including high rates of obesity, heart disease and other physical ailments as well as falling into the same pattern of abuses that caused a person to have their trauma in the first place, Slatton-Hodges said.

Oklahoma tied with one other state for having the nation’s highest percentage of children with three or more ACE points at 17 percent, according to a research brief by Child Trends, a national nonprofit research organization.

“We are creating the next generation of people in Oklahoma who are going to have unhealthy minds and unhealthy bodies because of this trauma,” Slatton-Hodges said. “We are in a very scary cycle that we have got to get ahead of.”

Breaking the cycle and treating the true causes of these issues will be what fixes them, Garrett said.

“I believe that we are not treating the root cause,” Garrett said. “We don’t have a good track record of treating childhood trauma. We have the idea of you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. We’re at a really critical crossroads in our community where we need to invest in prevention and intervention or we’ll need to continue to build bigger mental health facilities or jails.”

Bryden salutes after trying on police tactical gear June 21 during Camp Hope in Chouteau. The camp is for children who have experienced trauma. [Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman]

Hope on the way

Chan Hellman, the director of OU’s Hope Research Center, has been researching hope for roughly the last seven years.

The research is focused on three areas: whether or not hope is a buffer to adversity and stress, if hope leads to positive outcomes and if hope can be learned, Hellman said.

“How I define hope is the belief that the future will be better and that a person has the power to make it so,” he said. “Hope is about the goals that we set, both short-term and long-term. The critical aspects of hope are that we have the ability to develop pathways, which are mental strategies to goal attainment.”

Those with high levels of hope set goals that push them to achieve something, like going to college, while the goals of those with low hope focus on not doing something, like not getting arrested, he said. And the pathways to achieve goals for someone without much hope are often dysfunctional, he added.

Hellman said that levels of hope can be correlated to ACE scores. Those with high ACE scores will usually have low hope.

The study area is fairly new, he said, but already strong evidence exists to suggest that hope can be taught, retained and change behavior and future outcomes.

One way hope is measured is through assessments given to Camp Hope campers 30 days before camp, the last day of camp and 30 days after camp.

“We have found a significant increase in a child’s hope all the way through,” Hellman said.

Another study conducted by Hellman and his colleagues involved a yearlong hope-measurement of 1,000 campers from seven states. He said the results showed that not only did the kids have an increase in their hope, but it was a long-term increase. The kids also showed an increase in academic performance.

Identifying trauma in young victims can allow for earlier intervention and prevention that might help them avoid risky behaviors as adults, such as substance abuse, criminal activity and domestic violence

“If we have evidence-based programs and research that demonstrate the effectiveness of this, especially in our state with reduced financial resources, it can help highlight what the appropriate investments are for good social policy,” Hellman said. “Sending someone to a camp like Camp Hope costs a few hundred dollars per child. Compare that to the cost of imprisonment.”

Slatton-Hodges said Oklahoma has made some progress, like when State Questions 780 and 781 passed last year with the goal of decriminalizing some drug charges and lessening prison overcrowding. But the state is still bearing the consequential costs of substance abuse and mental illness treatment, high percentages of people on Medicaid and Medicare, a full criminal justice system, an overworked child welfare system and high court fees, to name a few, she said.

Garrett said a lack of funding to services that would help mitigate childhood trauma has made serving these needy populations more difficult.

“People are not prioritizing childhood trauma. A lot of services have been cut for our most vulnerable, which is our children,” Garrett said. “Well, what do you think happens to those kids? Their problems escalate, they don’t just go away when they don’t find help.”

Still, those at Camp Hope and Palomar believe the camp will continue to grow and that dedicated individuals will do what they can to help offset the gaps left by shrinking state resources.

Because of those efforts, Aleasha has the next few years of her life planned out.

She’ll finish her last two years of high school while also taking auto mechanic classes at a local community college. When she graduates, she’ll go to Oklahoma City Community College for her automotive degree and then she’ll open her own shop for other women mechanics.

She said none of that would have been possible if she hadn’t gone to Camp Hope.

“Camp Hope is amazing and I would recommend it to anybody with trauma,” Aleasha said. “It makes me want to become a better person and eventually show younger generations that it is possible to have hope after an abuse, rape, a divorce. It is possible.”

“Hold on. Pain ends. That’s how I define hope,” she said.