Children’s Mental Health Champions

In 2020, the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) expanded its National Center on Disability in Public Health efforts with the launch of a new pilot program, Children’s Mental Health Champions. This project was made possible through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These Champions developed state-specific work plans to implement effective strategies for mental health promotion, prevention supports, and the creation of networks (e.g., school, healthcare, and community) to promote better connections between these systems. They were charged to act as community change agents to increase positive parenting practices. They also provided timely support for children and their families as COVID-19 has impacted school closures, suspended home visiting services, made pediatric visits virtual, and caused additional stress and financial insecurity. Twelve Champions served as liaisons to the CDC’s Children’s Mental Health project in 2020-2021.


2020-2021 Children’s Mental Health Champions

American Samoa: Jean Anderson, Pacific Basin University Center on Excellence for Developmental Disabilities/American Samoa UCEDD

Champion: Jean Anderson

Dr. Jean Anderson is a Clinical Psychologist. She has worked as the mental health consultant for the American Samoa Head Start/Early Childhood Education program for almost 15 years.  Dr. Anderson previously served as the Part C Coordinator for American Samoa and was instrumental in redesigning the system of early intervention services for American Samoa.  Dr. Anderson also provides consultative and mental health services for the American Samoa Special Education program.  

Project Summary: The project goal was to assist the American Samoa Early Childhood Education program in the expansion of mental health screening to include trauma screening for students, parents and program staff.  Also, assist in expanding partnerships to include the American Samoa Alliance against Domestic And Sexual Violence and strengthen partnerships with programs providing trauma intervention and treatment.  

California:  Jazmin Burns, The Northern California LEND Project at the UC Davis MIND Institute

Champion: Jazmin Burns

Dr. Jazmin Burns began her work in the field of Psychology as an in-home Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) behavioral therapist, as well as serving as a Research Assistant (RA) at the UC Davis MIND Institute. Dr. Burns’ love and passion for working with families with Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (NDDs) grew and she quickly realized she wanted to become a Clinical Psychologist. Dr. Burns graduated from UC Davis with her BA in English and minored in Psychology in 2013 and received her PsyD in Clinical Psychology in May 2019. Currently, Dr. Burns continues working at the MIND Institute, in addition to serving as the Clinical Director and a Licensed Psychologist at Bridges of the Mind Psychological Services Inc. During her time at the MIND Institute, Dr. Burns became involved with the Sankofa group, a support group for families raising African American children with disabilities. Sankofa’s goal is to empower parents to become strong advocates for the needs of their children. By supporting parents/caregivers in their journey to bring resources to their children, Sankofa is simultaneously supporting infant/child mental health development as well. Dr. Burns’ love and passion for this group grew, so when afforded the opportunity to be one of the two CA Children’s Mental Health Champions, she knew this would be an opportunity to grow Sankofa to help even more families, not just in the Sacramento region, but across the country.

Project Summary: The goal of the Sankofa group this year was to increase African American families’ knowledge and utilization of mental health and other resources (e.g., school, advocacy, etc.) and create partnerships and relationships​ by creating opportunities for dialogue between the African American community and mental health and community professionals. Plans are underway to: 1) Expand Sankofa regionally, nationally, and internationally, 2) Create layers of programming so that Sankofa is meeting the needs of families in multiple ways (i.e., programs set just for training— IEP Workshops, Advocacy Workshops, Mental Health workshops, etc.), and 3) Developing a way to manualize how to set up a Sankofa group for communities wanting to do so. During this year, Dr. Burns was able to work with a Davis student group (#include) to develop Sankofa’s first official website. Dr. Burns also updated and created a Sankofa Facebook group and page so families and community partners could share resources with one another. Additionally, Sankofa was able to bring in trainees who are helping in the development of a how-to manual for other communities to start their own Sankofa-style groups. Local and national speakers were invited to speak to families about NDD evaluations, trauma, hiring more African American staff within the healthcare system, as well as creating more mental health training opportunities for minorities. Sankofa has many more plans for the distant future! Professionals can work with Sankofa or be part of their National Family Response Directory

California: Micah Orliss, USC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), Children’s Hospital Los Angeles

Champion: Micah Orliss

Micah Orliss, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. Dr. Orliss specializes in trauma psychology, working primarily with youth in the foster care system. Dr. Orliss is the developer of the CHLA Safe Surrender Clinic, the first clinic dedicated specifically to addressing the unique needs of infants who were placed in the Safe Surrender program. Dr. Orliss is also an agency mentor for the Incredible Years program, leading trainings nationally and internationally for other clinicians.

Project Summary: As one of California’s AUCD/CDC Children’s Mental Health Champions, this project focused on preventative care for underserved children during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Part of the project focused on sustaining the Incredible Years program in Southern California. Incredible Years is an evidence-based practice supporting positive parenting and enhancing children’s social skills and emotional and behavioral regulation. While this was already somewhat established in Southern California, the pandemic required agencies to pivot to telehealth and this project focused on supporting this transition.  Secondly, the project focused on expanding the Incredible Years program to other systems of care, including schools, Head Starts, and Regional Centers.  Lastly, the project focused on expanding the reach of the CHLA Safe Surrender Clinic, focusing on identifying ways to share the developed model with other regions of the state and beyond. 

Colorado: Judy Reaven, JFK Partners, University of Colorado School of Medicine/Children’s Hospital Colorado

Champion: Judy Reaven

Judy Reaven, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. She is the Associate Director and Director of Research at JFK Partners, the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities in Colorado. Clinical and research interests include identifying and treating psychiatric symptoms in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as well as the implementation of evidence-based treatments in community settings. She is the primary developer of a cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) group intervention for anxiety in youth with ASD (Facing Your Fears- FYF). She has been a principal investigator on many federal/foundation grants and has co-authored numerous peer-reviewed publications and book chapters, many related to the co-occurrence of anxiety disorders in ASD. 

Project Summary: The primary purpose of this project was to increase the capacity of community providers to screen, identify and treat the co-occurring mental health symptoms of youth with ASD. Initial steps of this project included convening  an advisory group of key UCEDD team members to generate a list of statewide existing resources/colleagues already involved in managing the mental health needs of youth with ASD (to avoid duplication of efforts). Following a meeting with this advisory group, a survey was developed to further understand the needs, gaps and barriers of the screening, identification and treatment of mental health symptoms in children with ASD, to establish priority efforts.  The survey was completed by 88 participants (mix of family members, professionals, self-advocates). Results indicated that the most common symptoms were anxiety, ADHD symptoms, and the presence of tantrums and outbursts.  Family members and teachers were noted to be most likely to identify mental health symptoms, and parents were reported to identify symptoms between the ages of 6-9; notably, the most common setting for treatment of mental health symptoms in this age group was school settings. 

In efforts to Increase information regarding signs and symptoms of mental health conditions for families/caregivers and interdisciplinary professionals, two infographics – (include titles and link to attachments or link some other way ) – were iteratively developed via feedback with key stakeholders. Spanish language versions are forthcoming. A dedicated web presence on the JFK Partners website along with dissemination efforts are underway.

Additional efforts to increase capacity involved the following: 1) two archived webinars on the Facing Your Fears program, group cognitive behavior therapy for anxiety in youth with ASD; and 2) an article in the inaugural autism advocate magazine on anxiety in ASD

Future work will include connecting with statewide parent/family advocacy networks, as well as with interdisciplinary professionals to provide informational, awareness and in-depth trainings on screening, identification and treatment of the mental health symptoms of youth with ASD. 

Connecticut: Bethanne Vergean, University of Connecticut Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities

Champion: Bethanne Vergean

Bethanne Vergean graduated from Quinnipiac University with a degree in Public Health and Health Care Management and attended St. Joseph College to complete her MS degree in Early Childhood Special Education. Bethanne’s career in Early Childhood began while working at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and Head Start to support children’s health and wellness, focusing on children with special needs and medically fragile children. Bethanne joined the University of Connecticut, University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCONN UCEDD) in 2013 to provide professional development and technical assistance throughout Connecticut. Her areas of professional development interest include inclusion, autism, social and emotional curriculum, and medically fragile children. Bethanne also worked as part of several community outreach and mentor coaching grants within early childhood programs. She currently provides training and technical assistance for early childhood systems.

In March 2019, Bethanne was selected to be the Connecticut Act Early Ambassador for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Act Early is a national campaign aiming to improve early identification of children with autism and other developmental disabilities so children and families can get the services and support they need. In August 2020, Bethanne was selected to be the Children’s Mental Health Champion for the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Project Summary: Through the Mental Health Champions funding opportunity, the UCONN Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) collaborated with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) to support families and children affected by the COVID pandemic. This partnership builds upon a DCF initiative for young children and Connecticut’s Act Early goal to collaborate with state agencies and partners on workforce development. The UCONN UCEDD had been collaborating with DCF to develop a training for child welfare social workers on Learn the Signs. Act Early. With this funding opportunity, the work was expanded to focus on children’s mental health.

COVID 19 has presented a number of additional stressors within the Connecticut families that DCF serve in child protective services. Some stressors include loss of job/income, lack of childcare, lack of resources, and stress of homebound schooling. In addition, there is fear and anxiety surrounding the illness of loved ones and the disruption to the normal routine. It has also been challenging for those impacted by mental health and those struggling with substance use. In the UCONN/DCF Partnership, DCF was trained on Family Interaction Training (FIT) program: A Critical New Tool to Support Families and Communities. This training supported families/parents of young children with behaviors.

In addition to the stressors related to COVID, the increase of racial unrest across the country related to the highly publicized death of George Floyd by the police is having an impact on children, especially young children. This event has opened the dialogue to social and racial injustices and has resulted in protests and riots with a great deal of media coverage and discussions. Many children have been exposed to these occurrences, which could increase their levels of stress and anxiety. Bethanne’s work supported a partnership with the CT Parent Advocacy Center to provide a presentation on Supporting Children’s Emotional Well – Being and Resilience. They jointly developed a training for DCF caseworkers, Community Supporting Resilience and Mental Health for Children as Our Communities Begin to Reopen, examining the impacts of COVID on the mental health of young children and the disproportionate impact of COVID on kids of color. They also discussed how to identify strategies to model and nurture resilience in children and families. 

Georgia: Emily C. Graybill, Center for Leadership in Disability, Georgia State University, UCEDD

Champion: Emily C. Graybill

Emily Graybill, PhD, NCSP, is a Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University. She is also the Director of the Center for Leadership in Disability and the Program Director for the HRSA-funded Maternal and Child Health Graduate Certificate (MCHGC) program. Her specific interests include infant and early childhood mental health, school mental health, universal behavior screening in schools, individualized positive behavior support in early childhood and schools, and evaluating the implementation and sustainability of initiatives for underserved populations, including children with disabilities.  

Project Summary: Emily’s Children’s Mental Health Champion project focused on workforce development for the behavioral health workforce in Georgia. Her workforce development initiatives targeted the infant and early childhood mental health workforce, school-based behavior specialists, and the workforce that is trained to support individuals with co-occurring mental health and developmental diagnoses.  

Kentucky: Mary Howard, Human Development Institute (HDI), University of Kentucky, UCEDD

Champion: Mary Howard

Mary Howard is the Division Director for Early Childhood at the Human Development Institute at the University of Kentucky, Kentucky’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Mary’s professional work has included working with state and national partners to support quality early childhood experiences for all young children.  She has experience at the state level working in the Kentucky Governor’s Office of Early Childhood and the Kentucky Department of Education as well as experience working directly with families and children through home-based early intervention and teaching in a preschool program.  In her current position, much of Mary’s time is devoted to her role as the Director of Child Care Aware of KY, Kentucky’s Child Care, and Resource and Referral Agency.

Project Summary: The focus of the Children’s Mental Health Champion in Kentucky has been establishing and strengthening relationships with state partners who support early childhood mental health. A large focus of the project has been on targeting child care providers, with the idea that supporting their mental health and sharing resources with this group will impact the mental health of the children and families they serve. Internal resources that are available for child care providers include training resources that are free or low cost. These resources are available at HDI Learning and include modules supported by AUCD/CDC funding to adapt Family Interaction Training (FIT) modules as a customized training series for early care and education providers; modules that support the prevention of suspension and expulsion of young children from child care; and, other topics that support best practices for working with young children.

This project also allowed for a strong connection with Kentucky’s Learn the Signs Act Early Ambassador through additional funding that was secured through the 2020 Act Early State Team COVID-19 Response Initiative. The stakeholder group that was developed as a part of this initiative has provided an opportunity to make a stronger connection with KY’s Early Childhood Mental Health director.  This has led to a collaborative effort with the Early Childhood Mental Health Specialists that will be supported by new funding through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. These funds will support a project focused on the mental health of child care providers, which will also support the mental health needs of the children they serve. 

Maine: Jennifer Maeverde, University of Maine: Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies, UCEDD

Champion: Jennifer Maeverde

Jennifer Maeverde, MA, LCPC, is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Maine with over 20 years of experience working with children and families in a variety of mental health settings, including psychiatric institutions, mental health agencies, and private practice. In her role at the University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies, Maine’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (CCIDS UCEDD), she provides mental health consultation to early childhood and out of school time professionals throughout Maine. Jennifer is also a faculty member in the partnership between CCIDS and the University of New Hampshire LEND program. In that role, she coordinates clinical experiences and placements for trainees as well as provides faculty mentoring. In addition, she is the lead in Maine for the Project SCOPE grant their LEND program received in 2020. She was a LEND trainee from 2012-2013. Some of Jennifer’s areas of expertise include: social-emotional development, attachment, temperament, sensory processing-regulation, early childhood mental health disorders and treatments, trauma-informed care and systems, and culturally and linguistically sensitive and responsive leadership. 

Project Summary: In Jennifer’s role as a Children’s Mental Health Champion, she chose to focus on partnerships as her program strategy. The intended short term outcome of her project was improving the capacity to establish and maintain partnerships within and across sectors to create a shared vision of health. The intermediate outcome was strengthening the capability to respond to public health priorities collaboratively and strategically. Maine has a strong early childhood and family serving the cross-sector community. Jennifer’s intention in bringing this particular statewide early childhood professional learning community (PLC) together was to enhance and build on the collaborations between these organizations and agencies, specifically in the areas of disability, mental health, and equity. Her approach in forming and structuring this PLC sought to address barriers to authentic community building, cross-sector collaboration, as well as creating a coherent, inclusive shared vision of health and well-being for children and families.

The professional learning community structure allowed community participants to ‘hold space’ for one another and these relationships supported risk-taking and co-creative collaboration towards a shared vision of health where the areas of disability, mental health, and equity were held in coherence and correspondence. The primary benefit that has emerged from this project is a confirmation of the critical value and need for enhanced narrative advocacy as a qualitative data set alongside quantitative investigation and outcomes. Narrative advocacy isn’t just ‘anecdotal information’ or a ‘moving story’ from an individual or family. Narrative advocacy is both a valid and reliable source of knowledge as well as a clear path to cultural responsivity, especially within oral cultural traditions. Narrative advocacy needs to be included within all strategic planning and decision-making processes directly impacting the lives of children and families.  

New Mexico: Julia Oppenheimer, University of New Mexico Center for Development & Disability, UCEDD

Champion: Julia Oppenheimer

Julia Oppenheimer, PhD, IMH-E (III) is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor at the Center for Development & Disability in the Department of Pediatrics at University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. She completed her doctorate at the University of Oregon and trained at the University of New Mexico, with specialization in early childhood development and Infant Mental Health. She serves as the Director for Early Childhood Clinical Services, overseeing Infant Mental Health and Early Childhood Evaluation programs.  Her areas of interest include Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health, early childhood assessment, treatment, and consultation, and the impact of trauma in early childhood.

Project Summary: This project aimed to create trauma-informed, Infant Mental Health consultation and evaluation services addressing young children’s mental health needs, integrated into existing clinics in the Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at University of New Mexico (UNM). By building relationships with a range of providers serving children birth to five and their families they developed new/strengthened existing partnerships and built a novel clinical service. Through these partnerships they aimed to increase interdisciplinary collaboration across departments and access to services for underserved/high risk families. They developed a consultative clinical service, in collaboration with the UNM Department of Psychiatry’s Birth to Five clinic, where they provided consultative support around parenting practices/dyadic processes, treatment recommendations, and referral resources. Additionally, they developed a service providing developmental and diagnostic evaluations incorporating a trauma-informed lens, prioritizing access for children in state protective service custody or with significant developmental differences combined with early adversity. Over the year, they provided regular consultative and evaluation services to children and were able to incorporate a training component as a formal rotation for pre-doctoral psychology interns. They also made necessary adjustments to provide services over telehealth as necessary per COVID-19 restrictions.   

North Carolina: Laura Hiruma, Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (NC UCEDD), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Champion: Laura Hiruma

Laura Hiruma is a Psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD).  She specializes in evaluating and treating individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions including autism, intellectual disability, and neurogenetic diagnoses across the lifespan.  She also teaches and supervises trainees on interdisciplinary and Psychology discipline teams.  Her professional interests include increasing understanding of the behavioral health needs of individuals with developmental disabilities.

Project Summary: Laura’s clinic work at the CIDD has focused on increasing families’ access to developmental screening, comprehensive evaluation, and specialized developmental/behavioral consultation.  In her presentation, Laura highlights one collaborative project aimed to enhance the pediatric and behavioral health care of youth with developmental disabilities who may have complex medical and/or behavioral needs by linking families to specialized screening, consultation, and family navigation services.  She shares work on building provider and family capacity to navigate behavioral resources through training opportunities, referral assistance, and resource development.  

South Dakota: Tova Hartle, Center for Disabilities, University of South Dakota/Sanford School of Medicine

Champion: Tova Hartle

Tova Hartle, MS, Ed.S, is a Training and Technical Assistance Specialist with the University of South Dakota Center for Disabilities, Instructor with the Sanford School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, and Adjunct Graduate Faculty for the University of South Dakota Department of Curriculum and Instruction. As a licensed K-12 School Counselor, Tova specializes in mental health support and care for children and adolescents, their families, and educators. Presently in her role at the Center, Tova works to support school professionals throughout the state by providing training opportunities in topics on student mental health, teaching through the trauma-informed lens, restorative justice, and implementation of social and emotional learning practices.

Project Summary: The University of South Dakota Center for Disabilities serves as the host for training activities targeted to PreK-12 educators with the goal of enhancing overall knowledge and improvement of best practices as it relates to ACEs awareness, social-emotional learning, and student mental health. The training specialist currently works in collaboration with the South Dakota Department of Education to provide online and in-person instruction addressing effective mental health intervention and implementation of school-wide trauma-informed practices. Goals are to reach populations in underserved rural, frontier, and tribal communities to ensure all have equitable access and resources for mental health supports, training opportunities, and suicide prevention. Additional measures involve working in partnership with the South Dakota Department of Health, Office of Child and Family Services to assist in developing and disseminating equitable and accessible Suicide Prevention education material, including a 4-part suicide prevention video series, the Text4Hope statewide resource, and messaging in accordance with the SD DOH Adolescent Health/Mental Health/Suicide Prevention workgroup target goals.

Virginia: Bonnie Grifa, Partnership for People with Disabilities, Virginia Commonwealth University

Champion: Bonnie Grifa

Bonita (Bonnie) Riehla Grifa has 43 years of experience in a variety of early childhood, special education, and mental health settings. She is currently serving as Virginia’s State Early Childhood Mental Health Coordinator and Infant Mental Health Endorsement® Administrator with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Partnership for People with Disabilities. Bonnie holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Music Therapy from the State University of New York at Fredonia (1974-1979), and a Management Fellowship Certificate through the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles (1996).

As Virginia’s State Early Childhood Mental Health Coordinator, Bonnie is responsible for coordinating a state initiative to develop and implement a sustainable infant and early childhood mental health system of care for children birth to five and their families to support young children’s healthy social-emotional development through a continuum of prevention, promotion and treatment options.  She oversees the Virginia Early Childhood Mental Health Strategic Plan and administers the Virginia Endorsement for Culturally Sensitive, Relationship-Focused Practice Promoting Infant Mental Health®, facilitates the Early Childhood Mental Health Virginia Advisory Board and the Virginia Pyramid Model State Leadership Team, and is a past President and a current Board member of the Virginia Association of Infant Mental Health. Bonnie was selected as Virginia’s AUCD/CDC Children’s Mental Health Champion in 2020.

Project Summary: Virginia’s Children’s Mental Health Champion work over the past year was primarily focused on supporting a legislative study on the feasibility of a statewide system of Early Childhood Mental Health (ECMH) consultation in Virginia’s Early Care & Education settings. Having a statewide system of ECMH Consultants has been a major goal of the Early Childhood Mental Health Virginia (ECMHVA) Initiative and their Early Childhood Mental Health Virginia Strategic Plan. The Legislative Feasibility Study was a recommendation from a statewide survey of the ECMHVA Initiative and Advisory Board overseen by Bonnie Grifa. This survey was developed and implemented in partnership with the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) and Dr. Sheila Smith through technical assistance the ECMHVA Initiative received from NCCP. The survey was designed to help the Advisory Board gather information that could help determine the need for additional supports for early childhood settings and the types of supports that might be most effective and welcomed by early childhood teachers and providers serving young children in group settings. This work also informed the goals in Virginia’s ECMH Strategic Plan and provided current Virginia data around early childhood suspension and expulsion: Learning about Young Children’s Challenging Behavior and Impacts on Programs and Families: A State-wide Survey of Virginia’s Early Care and Education Teachers

Their partnership with Voices for Virginia’s Children, represented on the ECMHVA Advisory Board, helped them to move forward the recommendations from the Early Care and Education Teacher survey by identifying a legislative sponsor, developing the language for the resolution, and advocating for passage of HJR51.


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