ST. CLOUD – Paige McConkey leans across the kitchen table in a gray bungalow, talking to 11-year-old Meadow Eberle about times she's lashed out in unprovoked anger.
Her father was killed in a drunken driving crash 16 months ago. His best friend, almost an uncle to Meadow, was driving and now sits in jail.
"Are you ever angry for what seems to be no reason?" he asks. "You're dealing with things that are tough to take. You have all these feelings and emotions and they're going to come out and we want them to come out in a good way."
McConkey is a mental health practitioner embedded in the St. Cloud police department's new program aimed at intervening early to help kids grappling with trauma. He starts his new job, funded by private grants, against a backdrop of chronic shortages in mental health services across Minnesota.
"Decades of research show trauma and extreme stress take their toll on children," said Dr. Abi Gewirtz, an associate professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. Traumatic childhoods can affect everything from life expectancy to criminal history.
Between 75 and 93 percent of juvenile offenders have endured at least one traumatic event. And child victims of abuse and neglect are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles and 30 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.
Despite those studies, experts say the mental health of kids and teenagers often falls through the cracks of a system built to handle perpetrators and direct victims of domestic violence and other crimes.
"It's not just veterans who get post-traumatic stress disorder, it's kids who get exposed to violence and trauma, even things like tornadoes that aren't anyone's fault," said Sue Abderholden, director of the National Alliance on Mental Health's state office. "Kids often don't have the coping skills, so being able to connect with a therapist is really important."
Legislators increased funding recently to place more therapists in roughly 60 percent of Minnesota schools. But Riverwood Centers, which served five east-central Minnesota counties, closed in March — citing county cuts as the reason it shuttered five clinics that treated 3,000 clients with an array of psychiatric conditions.
St. Cloud's effort to place a mental health worker in its police department is the only one of its kind in Minnesota.
"To the extent we can be proactive like this, it's so helpful," said Gewirtz, who has traveled to St. Cloud to train cops on childhood trauma. She hopes the program will spawn similar initiatives in other counties where greater distances create barriers impeding access to mental health services.
A knack with kids
Meadow Eberle, her younger brother and older sister are among the first 40 children McConkey has talked to since the job was created in March. His caseload includes a 17-year-old who discovered his father's suicide by hanging and another teen who was robbed by a friend who placed a gun to her head.
As McConkey and Meadow quietly talk, her mother and three siblings sit on a couch in a nearby family room.
"I haven't seen any of them open up with anybody like they do with him," says Trisha Eberle, their mom. "He has an amazing, natural connection with kids and a knack for making them feel comfortable."
When Meadow mentions to McConkey that her 16-year-old sister, Erika, gave her a journal to jot down her flood of feelings, McConkey interrupts his one-on-one interview.
"Hey, Erika, way to go with the journal," he hollers.
Erika smiles. Her days as a normal teenager ended when her dad died, thrusting her into an adult role as she helps her widowed mom raise her siblings, fueling a swirl of emotions that McConkey has helped her begin to sort through. He has an ability to cut through red tape and long waits for appointments with psychologists.
"It's cool he comes to our house because I wouldn't want to go in to the police station and talk," Erika says. "He connects with you differently than a therapist because he's really fun and outgoing, and he's not always serious all the time, and I don't like serious people."
To wit, when he walked into the Eberles' home, he greeted Erika with a loud, "The Princess is in the house," because she has "Princess Erika" stenciled on the back of her car.
Riding back to his windowless office at police headquarters, McConkey, 53, reflects on his new position — which is poised to encompass nearby Sauk Rapids, Waite Park, St. Joseph and Sartell. Part matchmaker and part first responder, McConkey tries to follow up on tips from cops or cases gleaned from police logs within 48 hours.
He'll talk with the traumatized kids and streamline the process to get in with a licensed therapist within two weeks. At times, he'll step out of his job description, helping find housing for a parent facing eviction or stepping in to assist an officer who needs him to talk down an irate person involved in a domestic clash.
"I'm not a cop or a social worker, I'm kind of a neutral party and my niche is the communication piece because I'm a people person," he says. "We're dealing with serious issues and we dig deep, but I try to balance all that with humor and model joy to help them get through all this difficult stuff."
He's a pastor and chaplain
A native of Willmar and married father of three kids ages 17, 21 and 24, McConkey spent years as a youth worker with a Christian organization, often working one-on-one with kids at the Hennepin County juvenile detention center. He worked in a residential treatment center for a decade in St. Francis, juggling patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other serious mental conditions.
He's also a licensed pastor and has volunteered as a police chaplain in St. Cloud for seven years. That's helped forge a vital sense of trust with the officers whose daily logs and reports he scours, searching for cases where he might be able to help kids.
His new position — he's officially a "trauma-informed advocate" — is a two-year, grant-funded collaboration among the cops, mental health agencies and leaders of the Stearns County attorney's office and its Department of Family and Children Services.
It came about in a fortuitous, if not fluky, way. Matthew Engelking, chief of the Stearns County attorney's juvenile division, was among those making a presentation on the county's domestic violence court at a meeting a couple of years ago in San Diego.
When they were through, they noticed the Greensboro, N.C., police were up next, speaking about their Child Response Initiative, which includes a child trauma advocate connected to the police department. The Stearns County folks listened, wide-eyed.
Greensboro's program actually traces back to a five-year grant in Minneapolis, where advocates and therapists went on ride-alongs with officers and were trained in trauma by Gewirtz from the U. That program ran out of cash in 2009.
An easy sell to police chief
"We had been brainstorming about what we could do to help kids, who are the unserved victims of domestic violence," Engelking said. "What Greensboro was doing really resonated with our team."
When he made the pitch to St. Cloud Police Chief William B. Anderson, "the words were barely out of my mouth before he said: 'Yes.' "
Anderson, who grew up in crime-torn Detroit, didn't need much convincing.
"Home should be a place of peace and solace and if that place has the most anxiety, trauma and fear, I don't need a room full of Ph.Ds to do 20 years of research to know the impact that's going to have on that little person and what kind of adult they will turn out to be," Anderson said.
Saves money in the long run
The chief gave McConkey complete access to arrest reports and daily logs — things Greensboro's advocate doesn't immediately see. Anderson's "graciousness" has been the key to the program's early success, according to Lori Schmidt, director of the Central Minnesota Mental Health Center that employs McConkey through a grant from the Bremer Foundation and another family fund that wished to remain anonymous.
Anderson said the program is part of a "crime mitigation strategy" that should save money in the long run by "building better citizens who contribute positively as opposed to getting on that criminal justice merry-go-round and not being able to get off."
St. Cloud cops nod to that notion, welcoming McConkey with open arms.
"For me, it's a godsend," said investigator David Missell, a 29-year department veteran. "Just look at my desk. I have lots of cases. I can get to the scene and make sure things are safe, and instead of worrying about finding resources for the family, I can say, 'Talk to this man' and head to my next case."
A school resource officer suggested McConkey check in with the Eberles. She knew the kids from school and could see issues bubbling up.
"There is only so much we can do with the time we're given, so it's perfect to have someone like Paige who can help them find the help they need," said officer Tiffany Thompson, who is assigned to Apollo High School, enrollment 1,300.
"Everybody has a different version of trauma," she said. "It's not always murder or suicide. I've referred cases where kids have had lifelong emotional neglect or abuse, constant yelling and nagging and made not to feel worth anything."
With McConkey down the hall, she now has a place to turn. She just hopes the job doesn't vanish when the grant money dries up. The first year is funded but the second year is pending.
"Lots of the things that start up always sound good on paper and in theory," Thompson said. "I just hope it can be sustained."
McConkey and the team recently traveled to Greensboro to compare notes.
"We told them we thought we were crawling," Anderson said. "They said we're not crawling, we're jogging."
Chris Bray, a former corrections commissioner, works with Gewirtz at the U. They will assess the results of the St. Cloud program.
"In the very short time it's been operating," Bray said, "I think the thing is really taking off."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767