Chris Haughee is a Covenant chaplain working at Intermountain Residential, an intensive residential program for children who demonstrate behavioral challenges with campuses in Helena and Kalispell, Montana. Chris and his family attend Headwaters Covenant Church in Helena. He writes about the ministry at intermountainministry.org.
Who are the children you serve at Intermountain?
They may be as young as four years old and as old as thirteen. We can house up to forty children and youth in cottages on our two campuses—for an average stay of fifteen months. Our staff consists
of therapists, educators, nurses, and case managers, as well as a psychiatrist. I serve as the chaplain on staff in Helena.
What kind of situation brings a child to Intermountain?
All of our kids have pretty complex mental health diagnoses. We see a lot of PTSD as a result of significant trauma in their past. Some kids are on the autism spectrum with sensory processing issues. Sometimes they’ve been identified by the symptoms of their trauma, whether that’s ADHD or oppositional defiant disorder—there’s a whole bag of diagnoses that are necessary to guide treatment, but ultimately early childhood trauma lies at the root of their challenges.
A number of our referrals come from school districts—from educational consultants in California and other states. Sometimes we receive kids from the foster care system because facilities or families do not have the training or support in place to help care for a severely emotionally disturbed child. We also have quite a few kids who reached a certain developmental stage and some kind of mental health issue was identified that their parents were unprepared to deal with. The families are looking for help to learn how to parent their child and get them back home.
Sometimes a child’s behavior in school and at home reaches the point where the parents genuinely can’t help them, and they call 911 because their child threatens violence or injury to him- or herself or others. The kids are hurting and struggling so much that they just keep amping up their behavior as a way of saying “I need help.” When parents are afraid for their kid’s safety, Intermountain can help.
As chaplain, what kind of activities or interactions do you have with the clients?
My role with the family starts the day a parent brings their child to us. From day one, my work is to come alongside the parents and reassure them. I learn about their faith tradition if they have one. Our program is based on a nondenominational Christian perspective. Within that framework we feel called to meet the family wherever they are. Sometimes families are experiencing a crisis of faith. Some children have had no exposure to any faith background. I come alongside all of those families.
We have chapel on Tuesday afternoons from 4 to 5, so I see the kids in that setting once a week. Chapel is like a vacation Bible school where we sing songs and play games and have snacks—it’s fun, so most of the time the kids are pretty jazzed to see me. We also have discussion time where we talk about spiritual themes that connect to their treatment. In that context we focus on relationship—loving God, loving our neighbor, and especially loving ourselves. Kids are working on all three areas through their treatment.
The rest of the week I try to make time to be at meals or spend time in the classroom with them. Sometimes they need somebody to talk to who is not a therapist or a direct care worker that is making them talk about their difficult feelings and relationship issues.
How do you connect with caregivers or parents while their child is at Intermountain?
We do weekly family therapies, so we try to video chat or talk on the phone with parents who live far away. Most of the time I am not directly involved with family therapies, but can participate at the invitation of the therapist or family when spiritual issues are involved. We also have an onsite apartment that families can use when they come to visit. We do quarterly trainings for parents on campus, which is a chance for them to talk with other parents and understand that someone else shares their experience. We also invite parents to come see their kids participate in a program at our school. For some of them, it’s the first time their child has been able to successfully participate in something like that.
The kids we serve have learned to survive a chaotic internal (and in some cases, external) life. At Intermountain, we offer them hope for a new path. We come alongside parents to help them learn ways to parent their children in a nonjudgmental and compassionate way.
How did you end up doing this work?
I was in between calls, having served as associate pastor in Helena at a Presbyterian church. I wasn’t sure what I would do next, and then I heard about this position from my predecessor, Dana Holzer. At the time I knew that Intermountain existed in my own backyard, but I didn’t know much about the ministry.
After I began this work, we also became clients of Intermountain. My six-year-old son, whom we had adopted when he was eighteen months old, began to display some significant emotional and behavioral challenges as a result of trauma experienced in his first few months of life. He entered Intermountain’s residential program for fourteen months.
Through our family’s experience, I learned how to empathize with parents who find themselves in a similar situation in a completely different way. I get what it’s like to try to care for your child and provide for them but what you’re doing isn’t working. Through his stay my son learned some ways to break out of negative and destructive patterns. He started to engage his trauma history and gain ownership of his story, including his abandonment as a baby. He has begun to really see what an amazing kid he is. While there is plenty of work ahead for us as a family, we are grateful for the healing work God has done in our son and our family through Intermountain.