Reading to Promote Healing

While there are many reasons why a family becomes involved with the child welfare system, one truth is always present, that a young person’s move away from their parent(s) causes feelings of grief and loss for everyone in that family.  In this episode Sharon O’Neill will be talking with Jamie Blouin, Stephanie Reale, and Jonathan Clark about using literature to help heal grief and loss with young people who have a trauma history.

Host Info:

Sharon O’Neill, MAT

Sharon has been a Kin, Foster and Adoptive Family Training and Coaching Specialist at VT-CWTP for 14 years.  She comes to this role with 30 plus years of working with and advocating for Vermont children and their families.

Guest Info:

Jaime Blouin, Resource Coordinator Barre District DCF Office.  She has a Master’s of Science in Children’s Integrated Mental Health and is licensed as a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor.  She’s been working for the Department for Children and Families for the last 6 yrs. as a Family Services Worker and Resource Coordinator and with children and families for over 20 yrs. in a variety of capacities focusing on prevention, education, mental health services, and child safety interventions.

Stephanie Reale, Staff Safety Specialist and former Resource Coordinator, Barre District Office, graduated from the University of Vermont as a Bachelor of Social Work in 2013 and as a Master of Social Work in 2019. She has worked for the Department for Children and Families for 8 years in various capacities. Prior to her current position as a Resource Coordinator, she worked with children in custody, conducted child safety interventions, and held an internship with Residential Licensing and Special Investigations.

Jonathan Clark is the Youth Services consultant at the Vermont Department of Libraires. Before arriving in Vermont, Jonathan worked at the New York Public Library, and has over 10 years of experience as a teacher/educator.

Show Notes:

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Cassie Gillespie (00:02):

Hello, I’m Cassie Gillespie. And you’re listening to Welcome to the Field, a podcast for child welfare workers, caregivers, and community partners. Today, Sharon O’Neill will be talking with Jaime Blouin, Stephanie Reale and Jonathan Clark about using literature to help heal grief and loss with young people who have a trauma history. Enjoy!

Sharon O’Neill (00:21):

Thanks, Cassie. Hello, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in today. I’m Sharon O’Neill. Before we talk about the evolution of this project, let’s hear about yourselves and what you do in your work, so that we can begin to make a connection to how we all work with each other. Let’s start with the resource coordinators. Jaime

Jaime Blouin (00:40):

Thanks Sharon, my name’s Jaime Blouin and in my role is to support our caregivers and how they work with our children that come into custody and the age range for the youth, children, and youth that come into custody as birth to 18. And so it’s a wide range that we’re working with to support them upon entry into care, and also through any transitions and exit out of care.

Sharon O’Neill (01:05):

And Stephanie, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself?

Stephanie Reale (01:08):

Thank you. I’m Stephanie Reale. I am also a resource coordinator in the Barre district office. And as Jaime said, we work hand in hand with foster parents and support caregivers through having placement of children in their home and all of that can bring.

Sharon O’Neill (01:25):

Great. And the two of you are both resource coordinators together in the same district. So you tag team together, right?

Stephanie Reale (01:33):

Yes we’re partners in crime.

Sharon O’Neill (01:33):

Excellent. Excellent thanks. And Jonathan, tell us a bit about your role at the Vermont Department of Libraries.

Jonathan Clark (01:40):

Yeah. My name is Jonathan Clark and I’m the youth services consultant at the Vermont Department of Libraries. And the department of libraries is a resource for, the public libraries all across Vermont as well as school libraries and my role focuses on providing resources training, and then, in some cases, financial support for the libraries specifically around children’s and teen programming.

Sharon O’Neill (02:07):

Thanks Jonathan. And thanks you guys for joining us today. I’m so glad we could get together. We’ve done all of our work over the pandemic, and this is the first time for this project that we’ve actually all been in the same room together. So that’s really fun. It’s nice to see your faces. So for my role with the project as a training and coaching specialist with the Partnership, we provide all of the required and advanced training for kin foster and adoptive families. So I partner a lot with DCF and especially with the resource coordinators. Jaime, why don’t you tell us where the seed for this project came from and how did it begin to grow?

Jaime Blouin (02:48):

Yes, it was a very kind of organic coming to fruition, if you will. I have a very dear friend, a childhood friend who also works for the state of Vermont in the Vermont Department of Libraries and her name’s Sherry Yeager and her and I had just a telephone conversation about what was going on on our jobs. And she shared with me that they were applying for a grant and that they were looking for someone to partner with. And I said, oh, look at us, look at us. I think you should partner with us. And so that’s kind of how this thought process came about. When we think about planting the seeds, her and I were talking about our foster parents and our caregivers and our kinship providers and our post adoptive families and how they really take on an embody and advocate for the children that come into care. And what better way could we partner than by introducing literature? And when kids come into custody, they’re leaving everything that’s known to them, you know, their family traditions, their neighbors, their school people, and it can be very traumatic and what they’re experiencing is loss. And so we thought that we should really target some children’s books ages zero to five, six to 13 and 13 to 18 different age groups to really address that grief and loss and to better support our caregivers and how they can manage that with the children that are in their homes.

Sharon O’Neill (04:18):

Great. I love that it was just a really organic conversation. Cause sometimes we get notices about grants and you have to kind of think about, oh, do I know anybody who could do this? And, I really appreciate that it was you and a friend talking and you came up with the seed for this idea. And Jonathan, how did the Department of Libraries, or you specifically start to partner together with DCF to move this forward?

Jonathan Clark (04:43):

I guess as the seed that was planted and that Jaime was talking about. That is just about when I started at the Department of Libraries and also they had just moved to Vermont to start the position. And so I jumped right into the beginnings of the grant process and helped create the book list that we used looking at all the different ages and really focusing on as was mentioned, you know, books that are focused on different areas of healing, dealing with loss, but also really focusing on, you know, newer release books that are new, that have high appeal for kids and teens as well, because there were some existing titles that had been looked at before that were sort of more therapeutic that had like lots of appeal to kids. So that was really important that we had that as part of it.

Sharon O’Neill (05:36):

Yeah, that’s great. And so you have the research capabilities and connection capabilities to help establish the book list. And then I became involved because we really had hoped, and again, this was designed pre pandemic that there would be some training. And so I bring the trauma lens together with this to talk about how literature there, and we’ll talk about this project, but how the literature and reading with someone that you care about can really help heal trauma in the kids that were taking care of.

Jaime Blouin (06:10):

And it’s kind of really interesting how, you know, we branched off into different focus, you know, after we applied for the grant. And, you know, I think that what has developed is a great way to have a community focus with community libraries. There’s like 187 libraries in the state of Vermont, which I was not aware of prior to this project and there’s 12 DCF districts within the state. And so trying to figure out how to connect the libraries with the districts is something that we paid attention to and really wanted to provide training for the librarians as well as our foster parents and caregivers, just so that there was trauma informed learning for the librarians regarding some of the community members that were coming into their libraries and how could they support, you know, the circulation of this particular care kit. And the other piece of that is our foster parents have this great resource in the community for them to access at any time and have these care kits available to them and what ended up happening, which was great that we kind of focused on, but we kind of branched off to another direction around having these trainings that Sharon has put on. And Stephanie and I have been a part of and to see some of the responses from folks. It’s been great.

Sharon O’Neill (07:46):

I mean, in a way I know we’ve talked as a team, the fact that we didn’t have the opportunity to utilize the grant has allowed us a lot of flexibility. And so what I think would be really great right now is to move forward and talk about the fun part of this project and what we’ve been doing with the ideas we had about using literature to promote healing. And let’s talk about some of the projects that we’ve been able to launch.

Jaime Blouin (08:12):

I would say that one of the first projects that we took on was connecting the librarians with DCF, and so Sharon, myself and Jonathan, we met and put on a training for trauma-informed librarians and creating a path to healing through literature. And we had a great turnout for that in the librarians were so just accepting and supportive of what we were trying to put out there for our foster parents. And many of them came up with ideas and suggestions on how they can be helpful to the Department for Children and Families. And it was just such a organic think tank, you know, for us to kind of take their feedback and then hone in on some of the other pieces of the ideas that we had. And one of the things that also came out of this was that we started to work on a book group and Sharon, maybe you want to talk a little more about that?

Sharon O’Neill (09:09):

Sure. So one of the books that we did the book group on is called Hey Kiddo by Jared Krosoczka. And this is a book that is we all just gave a thumbs up. As I said, the last name properly. We had trouble saying it earlier, but anyway, this is a book that’s written and illustrated by a man who grew up with his grandparents because of substance use domestic violence and problems with the legal issue. And this is our legal issues. And so we did this book group where people pre-read the book, and then I led a facilitated conversation that Jaime and Stephanie participated with. Do you want to talk about that a little bit Jaime?

Jaime Blouin (09:55):

Sure. And our audience was our caregivers, our foster, kin, and adoptive caregivers. And when we were going through the book with each other, you know, it really gives you pause to stop and think about what a child is really facing when they’re being removed from their parents’ home or wherever they’re residing and coming into care. And this book really illustrated, you know, kinship and the importance of kinship. And what I mean by kinship in this particular book is grandparents parenting their grandchildren. And that’s a significant shift in the grandparents, just being grandparents. It’s really grandparents taking on a different role with their grandchildren, which can be really challenging. And so I think that the foster parents and the pre-adoptive parents and the kinship providers that attended, could really sink their teeth into this topic and have some growth and some learning and something that I did is I have a 14 year old son, his name’s Parker, and he read this book on his own and he was so moved.

Jaime Blouin (11:04):

And so touched by the content. It made me think about, you don’t have to experience these things in this book. You know, literature, you know, is really about the relationship that you feel with the characters, with the people in the book. And he was so moved that there was actually like a positive outcome after all this trauma, this kid had experienced. And he was almost in tears when he was talking to me about it. So if that me talking to my son through literature about some of the trauma that exists for other kids and it develops compassion, you just think about how much of an impact we can make through these learning series and these books.

Sharon O’Neill (11:46):

Yeah. And I think, to what you were just saying is a really important point. You don’t have to have experienced these. So lot of the caregivers may not have experienced these things, but a lot of the kids that they’re taking care of have experienced these things. And so, you know, the kid, while they’re listening to the story, they’re relating to what’s happening, they’re relating to how someone’s problem solving, expressing their feelings, all of those things. And that can be a really good experience for a young person who’s in foster care who might feel really isolated. How did the participants respond to that book group?

Jaime Blouin (12:23):

I think that the overwhelming it was positive. And I think that the book that was chosen was also a graphic novel. And so that was a little different. And if anyone’s ever read a graphic novel, it kind of reads like a, almost like a cartoon with the bubbles. And I think people like, I know for myself, when I first read it, I was like, oh my goodness, that’s a graphic novel. I’m not sure that I can do this, but.

Jonathan Clark (12:51):

Welcome to the world of Librarians. You have to convince people that graphic novels are okay for their kids. That’s okay if they want to read them. In fact, they’re drawn to them.

Jaime Blouin (12:59):

And so I think that there was a lot of chatter about how maybe we have changed our minds and we really enjoyed graphic novels now. And I think that they also brought up some of the relationship dynamics within the book. And like I said, previously, just really sinking their teeth into the story and what was happening.

Sharon O’Neill (13:20):

Yeah. And not only the written story, which I think is so cool about using literature with kids is, you know, with people are also relating to the artwork, the drawings, the things like that, and getting cues about what’s going on for the characters. So another project that we did was we did a healing through reading book, it wasn’t really a book group. It was just like a book discussion kind of thing for caregivers of younger children. Stephanie, do you want to talk about that a little bit, please?

Stephanie Reale (13:47):

Absolutely. So Jaime, as you were talking, it made me think about you mentioned the conversation that you had with your son about the book. And that was very apparent in this workshop as caregivers, we’re having conversations with children that they were reading these books too. Sharon had had caregivers and children prerecorded reading these books with each other, and there was one in particular., The book is called, where do they go by Julia Alvarez? And this was a grandparent and her granddaughter who had a recent death in their family and the relationship between the two of them as they read this book together, kind of went through this journey of this book was very apparent and it was wonderful to see. And some of the conversations that happen beyond what’s written in on the pages was very powerful. You know, these were people, other caregivers in this group who didn’t know each other and they were very moved this and it was just a wonderful thing to see.

Stephanie Reale (14:55):

Another one of the books was me and my fear by Francesca Sanna. And that book just got so much praise by the people that attended this workshop. They love the artwork and felt that it was very relatable for so many different situations and especially children who are entering custody. You know, we think of, as Jaime had mentioned earlier, the change and the trauma that children experience, when they enter care, you know, the smell of their house, the feel of their bed, the food that they’re used to eating all of these things and so much change in the fear that accompanies that. And this was just a wonderful book. And again, seeing it read was a great experience. And I think it went very well.

Sharon O’Neill (15:38):

It’s a really normalizing experience too, because the main character in this book has which she calls like fear that follows her. It’s like this little creature and she meets somebody else in the classroom who also has their own little creature. And soon they find out everybody in the classroom has their own creature of fear. And we’re in the beginning when she first started school, her fear is really big. And as she starts making connections and relationships and friends, the fear gets smaller. And, you know, they end up showing all the kids out on the playground playing as big kids, but the fear is all really little and so really, really relatable. And in fact, in that workshop, I think it was somebody said, every person who takes a kid into their home into foster care should get a copy of this book to start reading right away.

Sharon O’Neill (16:23):

So then we also did another workshop for older kids, people who are taking care of older kids and in this workshop because we couldn’t read long books in the workshop. I had some guest readers. I use the Vermont Trauma Lens, which is a trauma resource that is supported by the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership. It’s on Facebook. If anybody is interested in joining the Vermont trauma lens, I asked on Vermont trauma lens, if there was anybody interested in reading books, because they knew no one wanted to hear me talk for an hour straight about books. And if they would volunteer to read the book and then do a video review of the book, and I tell you, I think it was in 15 minutes, I had like a dozen people and I really only needed about five or six. So that was super exciting. And what happened very organically?

Sharon O’Neill (17:15):

I just asked for readers, I didn’t ask for any specific kinds of readers or with any specific history and what happened very organically as we had a couple of people who had grown up in foster care or who were adopted or who were even a professional who work with these people. So it was really nice. They read the book, we did a video review and they talked about how they related to the characters or what it meant for them or how it related to something from their own history. And then we, I had a guided conversation with the participants. And again, people keep asking, do more of this, do more of this. People have asked us to come to the foster parent support groups. So I went to Jonathan, could you tell us as a librarian, why is it that stories are so, and characters are so relatable and so important for this project in particular?

Jonathan Clark (18:06):

Well, we’ve touched on it in talking about, Hey Kiddo and some of the other books as well is that, you know, these books were chosen for the topics that were addressed, but they also, especially the picture books for younger kids. You know, what’s one of the great things about picture books is they have a whole lot of different levels that you can sort of interpret them. I mean, all literature does, but especially with when you have such a simple text and with the images, and that’s why it’s great to do it. When you have adults discussing picture books, they bring a different perspective to it than, than kids might. But it’s that the idea that you can, you can connect to the characters. You might really relate to the experiences that they’re having, but like Jaime said with her son is that you also, there might be characters that are very different from you, but you know, with great literature and in whatever form, you are able to step into the shoes of that character and have an experience that maybe you haven’t had before and have empathy and have be able to feel the experience of that.

Jonathan Clark (19:06):

And that is definitely one of the powerful effects of books and reading. And it’s also partly, it’s also can be a very different experience as was mentioned when you share books together, when you read books aloud and discuss them, there’s of course, value in like reading a book on your own and you’re sort of ruminating it in your own way, but then to have to discuss it or to read a book like actually with people is really a different experience as well. And it can be very powerful.

Sharon O’Neill (19:36):

Yeah. I mean, kids who have a trauma history, as we know, Jaime and Stephanie cause this is, these are the people we work with all the time. You know, they can have a hard time making relationships. They can have a hard time trusting each other. They can have a hard time expressing their emotions or identifying their emotions or feeling like it’s possible to resolve a problem big or little and literature allows them to have that opportunity through the characters, which is really amazing. And like you were saying, Jonathan, that, you know, it might be an experience you don’t have or an experience you have. And that could also be like, not like I can’t relate to a domestic violence situation, but I can’t relate to being brave. And this kid was brave. I can’t relate to fixing something after I broken something and this character did. So it’s not even like big things. It’s just little things, right. I can’t imagine sitting next to someone and spending time with them and the characters are, and it just, it gives the reader the opportunity to say, if they can, maybe I can too. So how are we going to move this project forward? Or how is it already branching out and growing,

Jaime Blouin (20:44):

Great question Sharon, we have done so much it feels like in the last year, in the middle of a pandemic and this group is just really passionate about this project and trying to really get the word out around healing with each other. And so some of the things that we’ve done are the microlearning series with the book groups in the librarian trainings. And I think where we want to go with this is I think possibly next year we might have our Vermont Foster and Adoptive Families Conference. And so we’d like to be able to spread this to more districts, to more foster parent and caregivers and see where it kind of goes from there. There’s a couple of folks that we have in our group that aren’t here today and they send us stuff that they think that maybe Stephanie and I can use, like either links to resources or things of that nature. And we’re just always thinking about each other now, where previously, if you had asked me a year and a half ago, if the Vermont Department of Libraries and the Barre DCF office was going to get together and do a project, I’d be like, oh, we are?

Sharon O’Neill (22:02):

I’ve always appreciated that when they are the librarians in our group sent us links to different things.

Jonathan Clark (22:08):

When you hang out with librarians, you get resources, that’s part of the deal.

Sharon O’Neill (22:12):

And you get trauma-informed. Yeah. So that’s, that’s been really nice. And also I want to say, you said, we want to expand this to other districts. So really these resources are available across the state. I think you know, we’ve had a little bit of a trouble of a shift from talking to about care kits, which was going to be an actual kit that you could go pick up to. Now, these are just resources that we’re letting people know that are available at the libraries. Also the trainings and micro learnings will all be available on the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership website. And that is You can access this podcast and other podcasts plus the micro learnings. And then Jonathan, where could we find resources or access to these resources through the Vermont Department of Libraries?

Jonathan Clark (23:04):

So we have purchased sets of all of the books that are available through interlibrary loan to go out to libraries. And then a lot of these books are already like, Hey Kiddo, for example, there are a lot of copies already out at libraries. They sort of already have a lot of these in the shelves. But for people, if you go to your local library, which we encourage you to do or at least go to their start by going to their website, they’re all starting to reopen their doors right now, which is exciting. Then they can help you whether they have the book themselves or they can order it from another library and they can get you the books on the list and I’m can we, we put those booklets up as well.

Sharon O’Neill (23:49):

Yeah. So to find links to these resources, they could go to the Vermont Department of Libraries website and look for the grief and loss resources.

Jonathan Clark (23:58):

Yeah, yeah. They can do that. And again, the Department of Libraries, there are resources are geared mostly towards libraries. So that page has resources for librarians, for their patrons. But the list will be there. And then again, you know, I always have to emphasize to have people check out their local libraries. As Jaime mentioned, I actually got the number. It’s 185. I got it from Jeanette. I had to check with her, it’s 185 libraries in Vermont of all different shapes and sizes. But they do amazing, amazing work, and they really know their communities. And that’s part of what really makes us work and why there was a large interest. And some of them have already worked with DCF in various ways. And we’re looking for ways to support all members of their community.

Sharon O’Neill (24:48):

Also people can talk to their local resource coordinators. And if we have any family service workers out there listening to the podcast, in addition to caregivers, please do talk to your resource coordinator because they have access to these resources as well. And this is a program that’s going to continue to evolve. So we’ll make it smoother to find those resources either on the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership website or the Vermont Department of Libraries. Well, thanks so much for having this conversation today and really, it’s so nice to see you all in person after meeting over zoom for a year and a half.

Cassie Gillespie (25:31):

Thank you for listening. Welcome to the Field is produced by the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont. Our music is composed and performed by local band Brick Drop, and our sound production and engineering has been brought to you by Esmond communications and Egan media productions for welcome to the field. I’m Cassie Gillespie, and we’ll see you next time.

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