Heather Larkin, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.-R., is an assistant professor at the University of Albany School of Social Welfare. She serves as Education Director for the Center of Post-Trauma Wellness, which offers the Restorative Integral Support (RIS) model. This flexible model allows for fluid collaboration among community leaders, service systems, and people receiving supports. She works closely with John Records, J.D., the executive director of the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) in Petaluma, California. The COTS programs serves men, women, children, and families.
Prior to focusing her energies in this specific area, Heather worked on her dissertation. She was curious about challenges disadvantaged client groups face when navigating fragmented systems. She found dissonance, especially with co-occurring substance use disorders. So she started searching for solutions where there was more cohesion and found the COTS program in Petaluma and research on “adverse childhood experiences” (ACE). Studies indicated that ACE scores of 4 or higher prior to 18 years of age correlated with multiple problems later in life.
"At COTS, I started connecting the dots and seeing the relationship between homelessness and the accumulation of adversity and trauma,” says Heather. John and Heather began to communicate with the original ACE Study researchers. Heather continued that connection and contacted Prevent Child Abuse America, with the goal of teaming up to influence policy.
With the ACE study data documenting the need, COTS provided a place to implement the RIS model. The target population for the model is any high ACE score population. The model can transcend and include other practices because it combines research, a respect for practitioner skills, and the values of those individuals served in the community. Heather explains that it can incorporate various evidence-based practices (EBPs) because it is so flexible. She says, “When you adopt an EBP you still have to see if it works for the people in the community when you use it; RIS is not just another EBP.” Rather than choosing from menu items designed for other people or populations, RIS allows for flexibility in building upon best practices locally.
This flexibility is especially important in homeless services. People experiencing homelessness often have multiple challenges that defy interventions focusing on narrow problems. The RIS model allowed the COTS community as a whole to address multiple complex challenges. Heather currently seeks research funding to follow the efficacy of the model. However, it is already clear that RIS implementation increased the numbers of individuals successfully housed.
At the core of the model is the concept of resiliency for the entire community. It provides a roadmap to mobilize a therapeutic community collectively, balancing interactions between leadership and peer networks. All parties work together to address trauma, mental illness, homelessness, and substance use. This low cost system develops a community of care.
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