Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic: Joining Forces to Help Military Children

A child used to have to wait an average of 32 days to receive care for mental health issues at The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at The Up Center.

With a 2020 grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, the clinic was able to cut the wait time to about a week — while vastly increasing the number of children served.

The clinic used the three-year, $161,242 grant as seed money to hire a clinician who specializes in evidence-based treatment for children, adolescents, and their families.

Previously, the clinic had no staff dedicated solely to working with children. Yet, children make up more than a quarter of the people the clinic serves, said Tina Gill, president and CEO of The Up Center, South Hampton Roads’ largest and oldest human services agency.

“We had too long of a waitlist; we didn’t have enough capacity in the clinic,” Gill said. “We needed somebody for both the expertise and because we had too many children who needed the help.”

The clinic served 168 children last fiscal year, up from 97 in the year prior due to the pediatric clinician, who is a licensed clinical social worker, coming aboard.

The Up Center has been providing critical support services to children and families for more than 135 years. In 2019, it partnered with the Cohen Veterans Network, established by philanthropist Steven A. Cohen, to create the nation’s 12th Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic in Virginia Beach.

The clinic offers therapy at low or no cost and focuses on post- 9/11 veterans and their families. These services are important in this military-heavy region so their problems don’t become chronic later.

Cohen Clinic
Cohen Clinic

Several staff members have served in the military or are relatives of military members. Therefore, they know firsthand the issues experienced by military families, creating a level of trust with clients.

When it comes to children, issues can include having difficulty adjusting to new situations due to frequent moves, putting them at greater risk for depression and anxiety, said the clinic’s lead clinician, Sarah Pitzen, a licensed professional counselor and registered art therapist.

“A lot of our military children are resilient,” Pitzen said. “But we’re seeing in the clinic that they do face social and emotional challenges. For some, it could be a parent away on deployment or they’re coming back in and reintegrating into the family. We do see quite a bit of grief and loss, unfortunately, around a parent who has passed away.”

In addition to helping children handle such issues, the pediatric clinician trains and consults with other clinic team members and has mentored an art therapy intern who runs an art therapy group. The clinic also has added group therapy for children and adolescents who need help regulating their emotions or with socialization.

Other network clinics that don’t have pediatric clinicians are looking to the Hampton Roads clinic to help them build their own children’s groups, further expanding the impact of the community foundation’s grant.

In one case, a mother was concerned about her four-year-old daughter’s behavior when the girl’s father would return home from deployment.

“The girl didn’t really know who her father was because by the time she got old enough to develop memories, he was away,” Pitzen said. “When he would come back to reintegrate with the family, it was just so taxing.”

The pediatric clinician provided support to the mother, who was anxious. She also worked with the daughter and the entire family. The girl grew to understand her dad’s role in the family and why he had to go away every so often. She also is finding it easier to make friends and is less nervous than she used to be.

“She’s thriving,” Pitzen said. “The family’s thriving.”

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