For 72 years, Hanna Boys Center has been a place of refuge for disadvantaged boys – boys who, largely by circumstance, were in trouble. Dysfunctional homes, neighborhood violence, feral upbringings, drug abuse: Hanna Boys Center has sheltered all kinds.
Over those decades Hanna Boys Center has established itself as a leader in transformational protocols, a vanguard on the fractious front advocating for at-risk youth.
Now, with the advent of a new initiative called the Hanna Institute, the program aims to reach further – to train professionals from other schools and organizations that work with at-risk youth in using the trauma- informed care practices that have become a hallmark at Hanna.
Hanna Boys Center Executive Director Brian Farragher described the Hanna Institute’s mission as an attempt to “leverage the lessons from our residential program to reach beyond our local community, training youth-serving professionals throughout California.”
He says it’s an effort to provide resources for and raise awareness about “trauma-informed care” with other youth-focused organizations in the state.
Mary Kelly Persyn, who was brought on last December as director of the Hanna Institute, calls it “the outward-facing part of Hanna Boys Center.”
“We’re taking the mission out into the public,” says Persyn, who lives in San Francisco with her husband and twin daughters.
Trauma-informed care springs from the premise that difficult childhood experiences rewire the psyche.
The theory goes like this: A child who is tucked into bed bathed, fed, and loved will wake up for school prepared to learn. A child left hungry and unsupervised in a violent situation will enter the same classroom with his psyche disrupted.
Trauma-informed care argues that children who’ve experienced damaging events require precise and particular treatments to thrive.
Recognized as a medical syndrome by the moniker “Adverse Childhood Experience,” or ACE, these traumas comprise a rubric of mental and physical health stressors that trigger a wide range of problems through a person’s life. According to Persyn, of the 10 leading causes of death in America, eight of them are linked to adverse childhood experiences.
“We know that in Sonoma County there are tens of thousands of kids with very high ACE exposure,” Persyn said. “Those children become adults with higher risk for suicide, depression, substance abuse, asthma, cancer, COPD and a host of other types of long-term impacts.”
Persyn says that frequent exposure to trauma can do serious physical damage. “If every time you open your front door there’s something violent happening outside on the sidewalk, or there’s a family member living with substance abuse, or you have a parent who’s incarcerated… those kinds of constant and unrelenting stressors form a toxic stress pathway that actually damages your brain and your body over time,” Persyn said.
Persyn was an academic before becoming a lawyer focused on criminal law.
“I became fascinated with ACE science because it made so much sense to me when I looked at my criminal defendants,” she said. “They all had incredibly high ACE’s exposure, but when you look at the science and see that these kinds of disruptors actually affect brain development, your ability to self-regulate, your ability to make decisions when you’re activated, I thought, I have to go back upstream.”
She decided there had to be “something to help that is better than jail.”