…Treat gun violence as a public health epidemic. CDC data show that African-Americans are, on average, eight times more likely to be killed by firearms than white Americans. As a result, there is a whole generation of black and brown children who live in constant danger and are either being injured or killed in record numbers. Not to mention, firearms are becoming increasingly efficient at killing large numbers of people in a short period of time. As a result, survivors of this constant horror are feeling more hopeless and distraught, and they are dying from more self-inflicted gun wounds than ever before. In a 2016 global American Medical Association report, the United States had the highest rate of firearm-related suicides in the world. Just like with a disease, we need to isolate the cause, which is the easy access of illegal guns, address it and protect our children from these threatening and unsafe environments. Kids are kids, and no matter what they look like or where they are from, they don’t deserve to live in fear.
Asa part of my interview series with leaders in healthcare, I had the pleasure to interview Dan Kotowski. Dan is the President and CEO of ChildServ. Dan joined ChildServ in October 2015 after spending almost nine years representing Illinois’ 28th District in the state senate. Prior to his election in 2006, Dan served as the Vice President of Development for Uhlich’s Children’s Advantage Network for six years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the spring of 1992, I was a victim of an armed robbery. It was a frightening experience, and it caused me to re-examine the direction of my life. A friend of mine from high school named Phil Andrew, who is a survivor of a mass shooting, encouraged me to get involved with an organization he was heading called the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICHV). I started to volunteer and became a paid staffer responsible for building and organizing a coalition of over 1,000 advocates from the healthcare, human service and religious fields. Our job was to advocate for legislative policy change to make our state and communities safer. Eventually, I became the Executive Director of ICHV and helped pass legislation to protect children from unsecured handguns in the home and women from domestic abusers with guns. The experience of developing relationships in order to achieve a social benefit has informed everything I have done up until this point, including my time at ChildServ. Every day, I get to work with a team of smart and devoted people dedicated to building better lives for children and families who are at-risk.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of our youth, Johnny Rivers, was living couch-to-couch when his mother died. He found ChildServ’s Emerge program, which provides housing for young people who are at risk of being homeless. With his resilience, intelligence, the support of our team and our partnership with Craig Carlson and Stagehands Local 2, he was able to apply for and secure a full-time job. He now receives consistent, meaningful wages and benefits to provide an elevated quality of life for his family. This story illustrates how the difference between years of struggle and a life of success for so many young people is support from people who care and access to opportunity.
Can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the healthcare field?
For decades, ChildServ has provided mental health and wellbeing services. These programs help our children and young adults heal from trauma, caused by poverty, abuse and neglect, and ultimately reach their full potential. Our staff of clinical experts use a trauma-informed approach that guides how we build resilience in the young people we serve. We also ensure that kids and their parents are connected to primary healthcare providers and that these same children are immunized to protect them from illness and disease.
What makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
ChildServ stands out because our company values supporting and protecting the children and young people in our care as if they were our own family members. ChildServ impacts 2,501 children and families annually, but we are one of the best kept secrets in Chicago’s social impact sector. As a 125-year-old non-profit focusing on early childhood, foster care and adoption, as well as housing for homeless teenagers and young adults, we are large enough to have an impact in four counties (Cook, DuPage, Lake and Kane) but small enough to innovate and test new, exciting ways to help our children and families build better lives.
Over the past three years, for example, we have partnered with the Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation on a grief camp, where 60 kids and teenagers who have lost family members to homicide can heal from their trauma. This camp provides a safe place for young people to share their experiences with other youth who have suffered similar experiences. It illustrates how we use a strength of ours — clinical engagement and intervention — in a very targeted and supportive way to ensure that young people surviving the horrors of violence are not alone and are equipped to with the tools necessary to have a productive life.
Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to and/or see in the healthcare industry? How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo? Which “pain point” is this trying to address?
ChildServ recently initiated a new, holistic approach to mental health and wellbeing for the young people in our group for teenagers (ages 12–18), who are living in Chicago’s western suburbs. Our teens there have experienced abuse, neglect and violence, and they need a safe, nurturing place to continue their education and heal from their trauma so they can become empowered adults.
Through this new therapeutic model, young people who are at-risk a provided with opportunities to achieve physical, mental and emotional wellness, rather than limit their support to “talk therapy” and medication. The youth in our care are now participating in and benefitting from art, equine and drama therapy, as well as yoga, meditation and other outdoor, recreational activities that allow them to work through their trauma in a healthy and constructive way.
This means so much for the kids in our care because they are getting the same kind of help and care as other kids who do not live in group homes. It shows them that their issues are not insignificant, and that they deserve the same kind of interventions as kids who grow up with access to more varied resources and support. The bottom line is that they realize we are stepping up and standing up for them because they deserve every chance to overcome their struggles and realize their full potential.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
This new holistic approach to improving the mental health and wellbeing of teenagers in our group home is going to be transformative. Our team of youth care workers and therapists will have several evidence-tested, innovative ways to connect with our young people, and our teens will leave with more advanced tools to heal from these severe emotional scars.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. I learned this from my former boss and mentor Tom VandenBerk, my who is an innovative nonprofit leader. He shared this advice with me after I had worked with him for 11 years, and as I started working at UCAN, an organization dedicated to helping youth who have suffered trauma to become future leaders. Had I heard this earlier in my career, I would have taken more time to reflect, take better care of myself and realize that I don’t have to accomplish everything at once.
Tom also taught me a valuable lesson about apologizing when he once made a mistake and quickly apologized, taking immediate ownership for his actions. He said, “It costs nothing to say you are sorry.” It’s true. It costs absolutely nothing. I wish I had known this earlier in my career, as a simple apology can help to maintain strong and productive relationships.
I also wish someone had reminded me to pause and take a deep breath every once in a while. There have been so many instances during my career as a public servant and leader in the social impact sector, where I wish I had just stopped to take a deep breath. It would have allowed me to develop a more thoughtful, effective response, as well as separate essential information from distractions.
Next is the importance of listening. I wish someone had told me that the most effective way to build strong, long-lasting relationships with people is by showing interest in and asking questions about their lives. Ask people about their careers, their concerns, their wishes and dreams, and then pay attention to their responses. This is probably the single greatest way to demonstrate to people that you are actually care about them, which in turn builds trust and leads to two-way collaboration. I have seen firsthand how simply listening to others can impact the ability to organize and gather people for social policy change. In my current role with ChildServ, this means raising of millions of dollars to ensure that young people living in poverty have what they need to reach developmental milestones.
Finally, I wish I had understood the importance of expressing gratitude relative to personal and professional success. Knowing what I know now, I would have said “thank you” to so many people for their role in my professional development, as well as their effect on the public and social impact sectors. I would have also taken more time to write personal notes and made phone calls to express my appreciation. This approach has been extremely helpful in keeping relationships close, strong and productive, especially when it comes to engaging volunteers and donors to make a difference in the lives of our children and young adults.
Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this study cited by Newsweek, the US healthcare system is ranked as the worst among high income nations. This seems shocking. Can you share with us 3–5 reasons why you think the US is ranked so poorly?
1. Lack of investment in preventative medicine and practices.
2. Over-reliance on medication as treatment options, instead of lower-cost therapeutic alternatives.
3. Tens of millions of people in the United States do not have the ability to access quality, affordable healthcare.
You are a “healthcare insider”. If you had the power to make a change, can you share 5 changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Invest additional funding in preventative health measures. This means investing in efforts to educate the public about healthy food choices and life decisions. A 2009 study found that childhood obesity alone is responsible for $14.1 billion in direct medical costs annually. The public sector and private insurers should incentivize positive behaviors relating to individual and community health. We have found through our early childhood programming that teaching parents about healthy diets has a profound impact on a child’s intellectual and physical development. It is also very cost-effective and leads to fewer problems with obesity and diabetes as those children grow and develop.
2. Adopt a holistic approach to treatment of patients, considering alternatives to medications as solutions to ailments. In 2015, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published a paper bringing to light that 14% of kids under the age of 5 in foster care are prescribed some form of psychotropic medication. This is horrifying. It means at a very early age and stage of development, little kids are being forced to take pills to numb their natural response and alter the chemistry of their brains. This leads to an immediate and potentially life-long reliance on pills when other, non-pharmacological methods (diet, exercise, art therapy, breath work, etc.) are available to manage these issues.
3. Treat gun violence as a public health epidemic. CDC data show that African-Americans are, on average, eight times more likely to be killed by firearms than white Americans. As a result, there is a whole generation of black and brown children who live in constant danger and are either being injured or killed in record numbers. Not to mention, firearms are becoming increasingly efficient at killing large numbers of people in a short period of time. As a result, survivors of this constant horror are feeling more hopeless and distraught, and they are dying from more self-inflicted gun wounds than ever before. In a 2016 global American Medical Association report, the United States had the highest rate of firearm-related suicides in the world. Just like with a disease, we need to isolate the cause, which is the easy access of illegal guns, address it and protect our children from these threatening and unsafe environments. Kids are kids, and no matter what they look like or where they are from, they don’t deserve to live in fear.
4. Reduce the wait time for mental health treatment. In some of the communities we serve, children and families wait over four months for critical mental health services. According to Linda Rosenberg, President and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, “For every one day of wait time, 1 percent of patients will give up on receiving care.” This is unacceptable, especially in situations where a mother endured domestic violence, a child suffered physical abuse, or a family is supporting a father struggling with depression. Not addressing this crisis of care will only lead to further devastating results and perpetuate cycles of mental illness.
5. Provide universal health coverage, ensuring children and families have access to quality, affordable care. We have found that, once we provide essential information and access to care — such as connections to a primary healthcare doctor, immunizations and education around diet and wellness — more kids and families receive the preventative treatment they need, and fewer end up using the emergency room as their primary care doctor.
Thank you! It’s great to suggest changes, but what specific steps would need to be taken to implement your ideas? What can individuals, corporations, communities and leaders do to help?
The American people must be the catalyst for change to our healthcare system, advocating alongside elected officials, doctors and healthcare providers. We need to step up as a country and fight for a patient-centered model that places the health and wellness of people, especially children, above everything else.
To increase investment in preventative health and primary care, a national campaign is needed to promote their benefits to the American people. Given our over-reliance on medicine — as opposed to a balanced diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep and mindfulness — this will take time. The culmination of such an investment, however, will lead to taxpayer savings and an overall improvement in the health and well-being of children and families in our country.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better healthcare leader? Can you explain why you like them?
I am reading a book called “The Body Keeps the Score,” written by Dr. Bissel van der Kolk. This book is transforming how we improve the health and wellbeing of children who have suffered through poverty and violence. It highlights how we can help kids and families heal from trauma through alternative therapeutic interventions. This is part of what led ChildServ to make the shift to new and innovative therapeutic methods, rather than rely on the traditional approach of talk therapy and medication.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
ChildServ Social Media:
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!