Researcher addresses service gaps for families living with aggression

The Researcher

Queen’s University PhD researcher Maude Champagne

The Challenge

Closing the gap in support services for families living with aggression

The Solution

Identify unmet needs and bring people together to devise solutions

The Outcome

Three new innovations to fill gaps and support the caregiver community

When a routine survey showed an increase in dangerous behaviours at home during the pandemic, Kingston researcher Maude Champagne decided to act. Her response is bringing three new innovations to the caregiver community

New initiatives help families facing pandemic-driven uptick in dangerous behaviours from children with disabilities

A surprise finding from a routine survey to assess the needs of people accessing support programs for their children with neurodevelopmental disabilities set Queen’s University researcher Maude Champagne on a mission.

“We knew at the start of the pandemic that caregivers were burnt out, so we thought we’d do a survey about services to make sure their needs were being met, and as part of that we asked how they were managing during COVID,” said Champagne, who interviewed families throughout the spring of 2020. “To our surprise, the most notable finding was that they were willing to open up about aggression towards family members, and how it was aggravated by lockdowns,” she said.

The survey unexpectedly showed an increase in dangerous behaviours at home during the pandemic. Now, Champagne’s effort to fill the gap in Canadian support services is bringing three innovations to the caregiver community: Canada’s first-ever nonviolent resistance (NVR) therapy program, the first National Consortium on Aggression Toward Family/Caregivers in Childhood and Adolescence (AFCCA), and a brand new AFCCA Family Support Program.

As a mother of five children, four who live with neurodevelopmental disabilities, Champagne — a PhD researcher working under the supervision of Professor James Reynolds in the neuroscience department at Queen’s — is uniquely positioned to understand the daily challenges facing the caregiver community.

The survey — conducted through Champagne’s collaboration with Kids Brain Health Network (KBHN) and ABLE2, a not-for-profit organization that provides disability support services — pointed to an increase in daily verbal and physical aggression, with some families disclosing they had been threatened by their child with a knife or sharp object or punched while driving. When they went to their local emergency room for help, families were often told to return home because the hospital didn’t have capacity to treat their child.

“Sometimes they had no choice but to call Child Protective Services to say ‘come and get my child’ and that’s the last thing they want,” explained Champagne. “Right away, we knew we had to do something.”

When she couldn’t find applicable resources in Canada, Champagne looked abroad and discovered NVR, an innovative form of systemic family therapy which is widely used in the U.K. to manage aggressive, violent, controlling, and self-destructive behaviour in young people. KBHN quickly rolled out a pilot program and by the fall of 2020, interested families were participating in the 13-week intervention.

Next, she forged a collaboration between KBHN and Adopt4Life, an Ontario association for adoptive parents and caregivers, to fund and host a national consortium on AFCCA. The consultation brought together experts from across Canada, including people with lived experience, academia, policymakers, and representatives from the Public Health Agency of Canada, and resulted in further research to identify challenges arising for young people who show aggressive behaviour. 

Based on those additional findings, which revealed escalating mental health issues, barriers to belonging at school and in community, strained family relationships and, in some cases, having to live separately from their families, Champagne is now working with Adopt4Life to build Ontario’s first AFCCA Family Support Program from scratch. Parents and caregivers who need help can access resources by registering on Adopt4Life’s existing Parent2Parent Support Network.

“We’re trying to improve the quality of life of both the caregiver and the child, for everyone in the family to be safe both physically and emotionally,” said Champagne, who hopes to see all three initiatives continue to grow.

The ground-breaking work earned Champagne the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation — PhD, presented at a ceremony at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on November 22, 2022. The award recognizes her work in revealing a pattern of unmet needs for families serving as caregivers and playing an instrumental role in bringing groups together to devise solutions. The Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation — PhD is presented to a Mitacs researcher who has made a significant achievement in research and development innovation during their Mitacs-funded project.

Mitacs’s support was key to the rapid deployment of interventions, said Champagne. “What’s often missing in research is the collaboration with community organizations on the ground, which is why it often takes a decade or longer for findings to be implemented as solutions. Mitacs bridges that gap.

“Because I was already partnered with a community organization, people knew me, and I quickly gained the trust of the caregivers I interviewed. If they didn’t choose to open up, these supports wouldn’t be in place today.”

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country. 

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