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One Final Transition For Distinguished Child Psychology Center In Wichita

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For 85 years, the Wichita Child Guidance Center has helped thousands of children cope with life’s challenges.

Recently, the renowned mental health center faced its own challenge: moving out of its longtime home and into a new location.

The clinical services will continue, but as KMUW’s Deborah Shaar reports, the transition signals the final chapter for the Wichita Child Guidance Center.

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Jim Sommer working with a client in a WCGC play therapy room.

The dark brown, one-story building near Central and Grove offers no hint of the innovative treatment and research that went on inside the Wichita Child Guidance Center.

The center was known for its outpatient mental health services for children and families and so much more, especially during its prime years from the 1940s through 2000.

"This was the first place I came to when I came to Wichita," says Jim Sommer, a former therapist at the center. "It’s the very first building, the very first business I entered. I interviewed there and later worked there. You really felt a bond and closeness to your co-workers that I haven’t seen in any other workplace that I’ve been in, anyway."

Sommer worked for eight years at the Center as a licensed clinical psychotherapist beginning in 1991.

In recent years, the Guidance Center served about 500 children a month, including infants and adolescents. The young people often came with difficult problems such as being victims of abuse, suffering from personality issues or not being able to stop unacceptable social behaviors like stealing or outbursts.

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Former WCGC therapist Jim Sommer. He's now working as clinical psychology service coordinator for USD 259.

"The focus of the Guidance Center was children and their families," Sommer says. "Something else that was unique about the Guidance Center too, that was always there before me and up until things started to decline, was that it’s a family atmosphere."

Teaching was a big part of the Guidance Center, so much so that the center earned a national reputation early. The center was one of the first in the country to offer a child psychology doctoral internship, and in the 1950s, the first collaborative training program involving local agencies was created.

Psychologist Bruce Nystrom says internships there were coveted because of the highly qualified clinical staff and equally impressive alumni.

"Any psychology student would know the name of Albert Bandura. He’s one of the leading theorists in psychology and social learning theory," Nystrom says. "He interned there, and he specifically wanted to go there because the Guidance Center, even back in those days, was more interested in the social learning aspect of children rather than the medical model."

The training program attracted students from all over the country, including Nystrom. He completed his internship in 1982 and, years later, returned to work there.

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Bruce Nystrom is a licensed psychologist at River Park Psychology Consultants. He previously worked for WCGC.

He and others credit longtime director Joe Brewer for creating the family-focused approach to the work and treatment going on at the Guidance Center.

"One of his guiding principles was the Guidance Center formed a social relationship with the children who came there," Nystrom says. "His idea was, and became the agency’s idea, was that the Guidance Center will provide therapy for you, will provide your needs for however long it takes, which is a totally, totally different business model than what exists now."

Brewer died in 2011 and is often remembered for this innovative model of care that is slipping away.

"The business environment, it’s not just Wichita, it’s nationwide—that’s what things are going to, shorter and shorter treatment periods. More treatment based on treatment manuals as opposed to the social relationships with a child and their family," Nystrom says.

Careers were built at the Guidance Center. Important therapy techniques and social learning models have roots there--think the Bender-Gestalt test for developmental disorders or Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment on how kids learn from adult behavior.

Jim Sommer currently works for the Wichita school district. He says the doll concept seemed simple, yet it was a significant development in the world of psychology.

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A WCGC Halloween staff party in the building’s library.

"It’s a fairly famous experiment," Sommer says. "If you have taken psychology 101 or are a psychology major, you’ll learn about the Bobo doll experiment where kids would watch an adult either hit a Bobo doll or treat it in some other benevolent way and how the kids would mimic the behavior of the adults when they went into the playroom."

Even the Guidance Center building, with its plain appearance, was special.

Nystrom remembers the library was extensive, and there were several large rooms where children would play as part of their treatment.

"Each of the play therapy rooms was designed for a different purpose, largely on the level of stimulation for the child, the colors, the amount of toys and this and that," Nystrom says. "So you could put a child in different play therapy rooms and assess the effect of the environment upon that child."

The Guidance Center’s legacy and history couldn’t save it from hard times. The Center served as Sedgwick County’s provider for children’s mental health services for many years before the county ended that arrangement in 1999 due to a funding dispute.

The center continued operating independently but faced financial difficulties.

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Dona Booe is the President and CEO of Kansas Children’s Service League.

The Kansas Children’s Service League acquired the Guidance Center in 2010, but kept the clinical services at the Guidance Center building.

"We’ve always been very respectful of the legacy in children’s mental health that the Wichita Child Guidance Center brings to the table," says KCSL president and CEO Dona Booe. "From where we sit in this world today, being able to sustain the service is what matters the most and keeping those options open for families and kids and trying to help them get to a better place."

The Kansas Children’s Service League is a 120-year-old private non-profit. It provides an array of child abuse prevention services at eight service hubs across Kansas.

Changes in the health care environment forced Booe to shut down the Guidance Center building in mid-November, and move staff and clinical services to the KCSL service hub on North Custer.

Five positions were also cut, and Booe expects a 20 percent drop in the number of children they’ll see each month due to the change in staffing and location.

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Another loss: The Wichita Child Guidance Center name will no longer be in use.

Longtime local psychologist Bruce Nystrom and his former colleagues knew this day was coming.

"I knew that the Guidance Center was slowly, slowly fading away," Nystrom says. "I was saddened when I heard that they would be leaving that building, because there is such history there."

The Kansas Children’s Service League has not yet decided what it plans to do with the former Guidance Center building.

Trends show the future of mental health care is shifting to a more centralized care delivery system instead of a neighborhood-based agency like the model that defined the Wichita Child Guidance Center for 85 years.

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Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.