Rachel Downing spends a lot of time organizing records, attending meetings and coordinating professionals across the Northland. It doesn’t sound that exciting, until you learn that her work impacts the lives of everyone from an abused four-year-old to a suicidal 18-year-old.
Youth and Children’s Services Manager for Tri-County Mental Health Services, Downing oversees the organization’s Children’s Services and coordinates their efforts with a network of counselors and therapists throughout Clay, Platte and Ray counties. Stories about the young people they help can be heartrending: kindergarten boys or girls who have experienced years of trauma, older teens who have sought substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate and hundreds of others in between.
“With very young children you may see problems communicating or significant outbursts,” Downing explained. “They might be difficult to maintain at a day care or preschool, even become violent and disruptive.”
Older children and teens present different challenges. “The older they get, the easier it is to identify a specific diagnosis, but the more complex the problems get,” she said. “That’s when we start seeing substance abuse and other issues. It gets complicated.”
The issues aren’t rare, either. Today, child sexual abuse is more widespread than asthma or attention deficit disorder and more likely to bring mental health issues. It’s estimated that one of every four girls and one of every six boys has been abused.
The most difficult cases may involve children who don’t act out or attract attention. “Some children can become withdrawn, but they tend to fly under the radar,” she said. “That’s a real challenge.”
Another issue involves the limited resources for increasing numbers of children who are ill or abused. An important strategy involves Downing’s leadership to guide staff and providers.
Depending on the severity of a problem, counselors, case managers and others will seek to stabilize the situation and then move toward rehabilitation and finally maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. With serious cases, teams may use an intensive approach that involves school and home life, multiple visits and more.
“If a child is at risk of being hospitalized or being removed from the home or they are at risk of hurting themselves or others, we may apply a lot of resources in the first week,” she explained.
The aim of all of this is a maintenance level where only occasional checks are needed to ensure the child is maintaining a stable life. “The goal is to help the family get the appropriate services to help the child stay secure in his or her environment,” Downing said. “The goal is not to build dependency on our program but for them to learn independent skills and to develop services in the community to help maintain them long term.”
Downing often works with other Northland professionals to maintain this network of programs and services. “Sometimes the biggest problem is when a family has outside troubles, like needing help with rent or substance abuse,” she said. “You’re not going to get far with therapy until you deal with those basic issues. That’s why we want community supports to help them stabilize and get their needs met so therapy can be more effective.”
A community support worker for seven years before her current role, Downing also served as a case manager prior to earning a master’s degree in social work and studying therapy. She was born and raised in Zambia, Africa, by parents who were missionaries, and now resides with her husband and son in Shawnee, Ks. Her interests include gardening and karate, where she has a brown belt. ”In social work, you’re doing a lot of things where you don’t see the end result,” she laughed. “So when I’m away from work, I like concrete things.”
That’s not to say her work doesn’t bring results as well. “I believe in this program,” she concluded. “I believe it’s the most evidence based. It’s helpful to the client and helps them to move on.”