Abi Gewirtz

A privilege to serve

Associate professor Abi Gewirtz is improving outcomes for children and families affected by trauma and extreme stress

Abi Gewirtz was working at a hotel in the Middle East when the Gulf war broke out in 1991. As a young professional in vocational counseling, her job included teaching the staff, tourists, and journalists to put on gas masks in the event that chemical weapons were deployed. When alarms sounded one morning at one o’clock, everyone sprang into action.

The rockets carried no chemical weapons that night. But the very real impact on the night-shift workers worried about their children at home struck Gewirtz forever.

“They were beside themselves in agony,” she recalls quietly in her University office in St. Paul. “That was what started me on the path to study the impact of trauma on families.”

Gewirtz finished a Ph.D. at Columbia University in clinical psychology. She liked working as a practitioner, but she found a lack of evidence for the practices being used to help families affected by trauma. That led to research on developing and testing new approaches. Now on the faculty in both the Department of Family Social Science and the Institute of Child Development, she is able to draw on both disciplines and train a range of students.

The thread that runs through Gewirtz’s work is improving outcomes for children affected by traumatic and other extreme stresses—from war to homelessness—and finding strategies that work best.

“One of the primary correlates for resilience in kids is effective parents and parenting,” she says. “The vast majority of children in the world don’t have access to mental health resources. But most children do have access to parents, so that’s our focus—putting tools in the hands of parents.”

Gewirtz works at the vanguard of implementation research, studying the way things work and getting effective methods into widespread practice.

For example, Ambit Network is a federally-funded Center of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network whose goal is to increase access to quality care for children and families across Minnesota. Over the past seven years, Ambit has trained 200 practitioners in 34 agencies to deliver effective treatment for traumatized children. Based on its solid results, Ambit was just refunded for 2012–16.

In Michigan, a team is testing an Oregon model for health care delivery. The project explores people’s preferences for care individually or in groups, at home or in a clinic.

“We actually have a lot of programs that we know work,” Gewirtz says, “but they aren’t being used, so that’s the challenge.”

A research project along the Israel-Gaza border is at an earlier stage. There, a study is observing parent-child interactions in families exposed to years of missile attacks, where they have 45 seconds’ notice before a strike. While looking at the impact of such long-term exposure, researchers also hope to see whether an effective parent-training model developed in the United States has any relevance.

In Minnesota, there is Project ADAPT. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the project is recruiting military families, especially those in the Minnesota National Guard and Reserves. The goal is to ease the transition after deployment by developing and testing the effectiveness of a parenting program to strengthen resilience in children and families. Already 250 of the 400 families needed for the study have enrolled and are participating. Each family’s home becomes a virtual lab.

“We take big batches of equipment into people’s homes,” Gewirtz says. “Video cameras, games—puzzles and board games like Blockhead and Rush Hour, tablet computers, heart-rate belts. Interactions go deep below the skin.”

Down the hall from her office, a highly trained team of students and post-docs spend hours decoding the data. Results from Project ADAPT after six months are encouraging but the true test will come at the one-year mark and beyond.

Gewirtz grew up hearing stories of her father’s evacuation from war-torn London as a child. Today, she has four children of her own, from grade school to college. As her slight figure moves from office to lab to classroom, her drive to improve outcomes for all the world’s children seems to infuse those around her as well.

“It is a complete privilege to work with these families who have sacrificed so much for our country,” she says. “We have fantastic community partners—and we don’t make change here in the university without working with communities.”

Learn more about Abi Gewirtz and her research.

Story by Gayla Marty | November 2012