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Child Trauma Research Impacts Psychology Field

By Rachel Judy | February 13, 2012

Kaitlin Knodel isn't just content to sit back and let her time as a Regent University student be about books and papers and classroom assignments. As a student co-investigator on a grant related to understanding the role of religion and spirituality in treating victims of child trafficking, she's working hard to make a difference now.

"I chose to focus on this issue because of the wide-spread impact it has on youth both internationally and domestically," she said. "As individuals in this field, it is our duty to stand up for and help those who can't help themselves."

Knodel's statement reflects the goal of the Child Trauma Institute, a group of doctoral in clinical psychology (Psy.D.) students working with Dr. Donald Walker in Regent University's School of Psychology & Counseling.

The purpose of the Child Trauma Institute is to serve as a leading voice in research, training and practice to understand the role of religious and spiritual faith in the prevention of and recovery from various forms of childhood trauma, particularly child abuse.

The institute is believed to be the first and only research center in the country dedicated to studying the dynamics involved in child abuse from what the institute calls "a spiritually integrative psychological perspective."

The team members are involved with various projects, but Walker's goal for the group is simple: empirical research with practical results. "Now is the time for folks who are able to do the empirical research to step forward and to start doing some empirical investigation into [the question], 'how do these kids end up being trafficked and what are we doing about it?'" Walker explained.

Empirical research—research based on observation and experiment—can lead to new therapies and a new understanding of how to work with children who have experienced trauma. The faith component is one the team believes can have significant impacts on treatments and recovery.

"The field of psychology as a whole is beginning to recognize that religious and spiritual issues are important variables to consider as they can have significant effects on peoples' lives," explained Psy.D. student Katherine Partridge. "Once we have collected data on what interventions children have found helpful, we can better help to educate therapists on how to use spiritual interventions with child trauma victims."

Partridge and Walker recently co-authored a paper on the use of Scripture in empirically supported treatments for children. It was accepted to the Christian Association for Psychological Studies.

Knodel has also submitted a paper to the American Psychological Association for their annual conference.

"Children need someone who can get on their level and talk with them in ways that they can both communicate and understand, and most of the time this is different than how one would talk about these issues with an adult," Knodel explained. "Further, when children experience trauma, it can have a profound effect on their functioning later in life, and it is better for issues to be dealt with as soon as they are found to have occurred."

Psy.D. student Rachel Hanson echoes Knodel and Partridge, although her interests are a bit broader; Hanson recently co-authored a book chapter with Walker dealing with domestic violence and religion. "Studying in this area has alerted me to the complexity of this issue and how much work needs to be done," she said.

Walker is passionate about his team's current research and he's continuing to look for ways to expand their reach. In December, he was invited to attend the U.S. Agency for International Development's summit on Protecting Children Outside of Family Care. "Basically, they were setting up research recommendations to help kids who've been trafficked in many different areas," he explained.

The two-day summit focused on the current state of research, policy and practice in helping children who have been victims of child trafficking in the United States and abroad.

Ultimately, as he guides his research team and continues to find practical ways to apply their research, Walker's goal is to train students to provide innovation and leadership in the field. "Regent's mission is Christian Leadership to Change the World," he said. "I want to be sending out students who are able to be in the Christian and secular trauma facility, but also be the spiritually aware and spiritually capable person addressing those faith issues that are going to come out in treatment."

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