Brenda T. Thompson of The Branch Family Institute is a key UChicago Medicine community partner helping to ensure victims of intentional violence get mental health services and other support they need to recover from trauma and reduce their risk of being re-injured.
“Once a crisis has subsided, people have to have a soft place to land,” says Brenda T. Thompson, LCSW, founder and CEO of The Branch Family Institute, a nonprofit based in the Morgan Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. By providing culturally appropriate, trauma-informed counseling services to low-income families, Thompson and her team are community partners in the University’s work to ease the landing for victims of trauma. She says part of this care is helping clients not feel judged for seeking help to recover from trauma or for receiving mental health services.
“I’m African American and grew up on the South Side, and I know that Black folks are distrustful of many institutions. Because of the long history of racism and oppression in poor African American communities, it’s our mission to make sure people are treated with respect and dignity.”
In 2018, the Branch Family Institute began working with UChicago Medicine’s Violence Recovery Program, the only hospital-based violence intervention program in Chicago that serves both adults and children. The program’s lead violence recovery specialist, Dwayne Johnson, is also a therapist at The Branch Family Institute’s parent organization and knew that the institute would be a perfect fit to partner with the medical center’s Block Hassenfeld Casdin (BHC) Collaborative for Family Resilience.
Children who are exposed to trauma are at significant risk of developing physical and mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, so the collaborative builds on the Violence Recovery Program with an innovative approach to trauma care that focuses specifically on children and families. Building long-term resiliency from trauma and violence begins with personalized care for the child and family in the medical center, but includes much more than medical care alone.
UChicago Medicine works with a network of BHC-supported, community-based organizations to ensure that children and their families have the services they need in the hospital, after discharge, and through recovery at home. Those services might include mental health support, social services, help finding housing or child care, assistance navigating the health care system, and more.
Such wraparound services are essential to recovery from trauma, providing a bridge for continued healing as families transition back into the community, Thompson says. “You’re talking about a population that is in crisis and traumatized and may not have adequate access to care, so a strong partnership between the hospital and the community is critical,” she explains. “When you refer these folks out into the community, you can’t just make a referral and call it a day. You have to connect the dots and literally link them directly to the appropriate services.”
Thompson says that a recent client family is a good example: A single mother with several children lost one of her sons to violence. When the family left the hospital after his death, they struggled; the mother was afraid to leave the house, and her other children were traumatized by their brother’s passing. The violence recovery specialist working with the family kept in constant touch with the family and finally convinced the mother that counseling would help.
“The violence recovery specialist had built a relationship with the family,” Thompson says, “but it took a partnership between the two of us to support them. We found out that the mother’s Medicaid provider would pay for transportation, so we got that set up to enable the family to come to the office for counseling.” At The Branch Family Institute office, they found a safe environment and clinicians who looked like them so they could receive therapy that focused on reinforcing their strengths as individuals and as a family, and on building resiliency skills to last a lifetime.
Providing counseling and support after trauma is the most reliable way to interrupt the cycle of violence in families and communities, according to Thompson: “Stronger families lead to stronger communities.”