Green Country Grown-Up: Dr. Michael Baxter
Providing Hope to Children
Without hope, children who have suffered from child abuse can become mired in a difficult past. Without hope, caregivers who want to help may find themselves similarly stuck. Dr. Michael Baxter, OU College of Medicine, is an expert in the field of child maltreatment and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and works closely with the Hope Research Center at OU-Tulsa. He uses his expertise in ACEs and “hope” research to help children and families at the Child Advocacy Center.
The Child Advocacy Center houses the Child Abuse Network (CAN), a non-profit that uses a centralized approach to give children and families a single, child-friendly location to access a team of agencies that work on child abuse cases. We talked with Dr. Baxter about his work.
TK: Tell us about your background.
Dr. Baxter: My educational background includes medical school at OSU and a pediatric residency through OU. Following my residency, I chose further study through a child abuse pediatric fellowship. I am a pediatrician subspecializing in pediatric child abuse.
TK: How did you become interested in subspecializing in pediatric child abuse?
Dr. Baxter: I knew I was interested in pediatrics and after learning more from Dr. Robert Block, a pioneer in this field, I felt a connection to what they were doing here at the center (Child Advocacy Center). This is a good fit for me.
TK: Talk about the Hope Research Center. Why is having hope essential for everyone?
Dr. Baxter: Hope is a powerful feeling – it only takes a little to grow into something much larger. Hope is different than resiliency or grit – there is more science behind hope.
TK: What is “hope” research and why is it important?
Dr. Baxter: Hope research has been expanded over the past six to seven years by Dr. Chan Hellman, the founding director of the Hope Research Center with OU-Tulsa. Hope research sets a level, or agency, of hope a person has which directly correlates with what resources, or pathways, need to be taken to get to that hopeful place. This research is important because when we have children who have experienced adverse or traumatic situations, we need to teach them that it will get better.
TK: What have you identified through this research?
Dr. Baxter: Through years of study, the research established a Hope Theory, which quantifies a person’s level of hope. With this in mind, we can administer a validated survey to someone and identify their level of hope. This measurable result can help the Child Advocacy Center team members identify the proper channels, resources and referrals to guide the individual through treatment and ultimate healing process.
TK: Can you provide an example of how this research works at the Child Advocacy Center?
Dr. Baxter: A person’s level of hope can be identified and measured. Recognizing that each person’s level of hope is different, we identify their level and then analyze the next steps to take. There can be healthy outcomes for children who have experienced trauma if they have a protective caregiver who believes in them and they seek trauma-focused therapy. For example, if a child experiences maltreatment but has a hopeful caregiver whose goal is to give that child a truly better life, but the caregiver might have a low hope pathway in providing the solution. Hope is different than a wish in that hope is about taking action to achieve our goals. That’s where the Child Advocacy Center can help educate the caregiver on ways to obtain necessary resources to provide actionable steps they can take towards that solution.
TK: What are ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)?
Dr. Baxter: ACEs are potentially traumatic events that can impact a child (ages 0 – 17) causing negative behaviors that can last into adulthood if they are not addressed. The more ACEs a person experiences correlates to the risk of suffering negative behaviors as an adult. Examples of ACEs include (such events as) experiencing violence in the home, or physical abuse, and a parent who is incarcerated. Extreme life-long effects of ACEs can include chronic health problems, substance abuse and mental illness.
TK: How do ACEs and hope research relate to what children experience at CAN?
Dr. Baxter: We know from our research that caregivers who have experienced both physical and sexual abuse have statistically lower levels of hope. This is important because they may lack the agency and/or pathways to help their children. We must work with the caregiver to improve their hope so we can provide the child with an optimal resource for recovery.
TK: How does CAN help children through the process of investigating abuse without retraumatizing them?
Dr. Baxter: All of the services children and families need are co-located. Families receive multiple services in a single visit to the Child Advocacy Center with most kids in and out in a few hours. We focus on the safety and wellbeing of the child and then branch off to immediate family and caregivers.
TK: What do you find most challenging about your job?
Dr. Baxter: I know, as a society, we have the wealth and capabilities to help everyone, but the system is stretched thin. I would love to see more resources and funding targeted towards child abuse prevention. To this point, I am becoming more active in the American Academy of Pediatrics and hope to influence legislation to eventually secure more funding and resources in this area.
TK: What aspect of your job do you find most rewarding?
Dr. Baxter: When I’m able to educate others in the field of children’s maltreatment and services. I enjoy educating families, child protective services, colleagues and medical students to help them understand child maltreatment so they can go out and help others.
TK: What else would you like to mention?
Dr. Baxter: My ultimate career goal is to put myself out of business. We are trying to break cycles and decrease the number of kids who are victimized. Everyone has to have hope that we, as a society, can do this together.
For more information on CAN and the Child Advocacy Center: childabusenetwork.org