As a social worker, Kristen Keely-Dinger had a lot of experience solving complicated problems. When she learned about Our Kids and the work being done there, she knew she wanted to get involved but wasn’t certain how her expertise would apply. That would soon become apparent.
In 2000, Our Kids was at a critical expansion point. They wanted to provide more services at more locations, and as development committee chair, she was eager for the challenge.
“I was a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteer, and had been assigned to a child in the foster-care system,” says Keely-Dinger, now President and CEO of The Healing Trust. “Working with her and her foster family, I saw what kids and their families went through when dealing with allegations of abuse and neglect within the judicial system. At the same time, serving on the Our Kids board allowed me to pull further back and understand the whole picture of what goes on when there is an allegation. I saw the need for emotional and social support, not just at the outset, but through examination, interviews, follow-up visits and court proceedings.”
Steps along the way
At Our Kids, Keely-Dinger saw:
- Nurse practitioners helping children and families at their most vulnerable
- Rigorous standards around confidentiality to help facts stand up in court, and
- Physical, mental and emotional healing become possible for the victims.
“I saw all the roles that Our Kids plays, and the way they were involved throughout that child’s journey made so much sense to me,” she says.
But her experience taught her Our Kids could only do so much. Rural areas needed services closer to residents to overcome transportation and other barriers. So she pushed for the Our Kids Expansion Initiative, which led to four satellite clinics around Middle Tennessee in established children’s advocacy centers.
“It can take hours to get to Our Kids from an outlying area,” she says. “By having Our Kids’ services available at their local centers, families coming in already have a history of working with that center. They feel more comfortable, plus they don’t have to take a whole day off work and figure out how to get to Nashville. It made sense to replicate our model in a different location, with Our Kids well-trained staff who can be co-located on certain days within those centers.”
Along the way, Our Kids field teams share their knowledge with advocacy center staff so they can build more comprehensive skills for evaluation, tracking and supporting families and children.
Voice for the voiceless
Now, in her work at The Healing Trust, Keely-Dinger combines her social work experience with her undergrad studies in neuroscience and chemistry to find more ways to improve the continuum of care.
“Many of the people we see are healing from addiction and abuse, and I can take that 30,000-foot view to see how the relationship between neural biology — the physiology of the mind — works in terms of how adverse childhood experiences affect how the brain forms,” says Keely-Dinger.
“When children experience abuse, neglect or dysfunction in the family, their brains are rewired in a way that can cause them to have chronic health conditions as they get older, and unhealthy coping skills such as addiction and alcoholism. It all ties together, and goes back to the abuse that might not have been reported and addressed were there not an organization like Our Kids.”
Keely-Dinger is quick to add something she thinks many people forget: there is hope for these children and adults, and Our Kids is a key part of that equation.
“Seeing the well-founded research that shows how intervention can lead to healthier outcomes, we can help ward off issues like addiction and even heart disease and diabetes,” she says. “With organizations like Our Kids, we can build a system to prevent those things from happening, and help communities decrease long-term chronic issues by tackling child abuse and neglect. We are at the intersection of neuroscience, social work and healthy living, so it’s vital Our Kids keeps doing what it does.”