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Stars Of Higher Education: Dr. Karyn Purvis, Renowned Child Development Researcher

By Heather O'Neill
December 9, 2009

Dr. Karyn Purvis is on an amazing journey, one that even she could never have predicted. For years a stay-at-home mother raising three sons, when she found her nest empty she decided to go back to school to finish her undergraduate degree in psychology at Texas Christian University.

Dr. Purvis received her undergraduate degree at TCU, and then some. She continued on to receive her masters and doctorate in Developmental Psychology from TCU and has spent the last 10 years developing research-cased interventions for children who have been traumatized in abusive homes and orphanages.

Today, Dr. Purvis is the director of TCU's Institute of Child Development.

In addition to her work with adopted and foster children, Dr. Purvis writes for scientific journals, parents magazines, and has co-authored with her colleague, Dr. David Cross. Published in 2007 by McGraw-Hill, The Connected Child: Bringing Hope and Healing to your Adoptive Family has earned rank as a best-selling book on adoption.

Dr. Karyn Purvis, Child Psychologist

In her "spare time," Dr. Purvis serves as expert witness in court cases of child abuse, testifies for state and national legislation, and speaks frequently to national and international groups. Recent trips have taken her to varied national groups from trainings for judges and CPS workers, to training international parents and professionals in England, Iceland, Scotland, Romania, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Dr. Purvis' work has been featured in NBC Dateline, Fort Worth Weekly, Newsweek, Parents Magazine, and other publications. She and Dr. Cross were recently honored with the Dallas business journal Heroes of Healthcare Award. Dr. Purvis was awarded the T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. Infant Mental Health Advocacy Award, a state-wide award for child advocacy in January 2008. She was also awarded the title of Distinguished Fellow in Adoption and Child Development in August 2008 by the National Council for Adoption. In September 2008, Dr. Purvis was appointed Presiding Officer of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Committee on Licensing Standards by Governor Rick Perry.

Even Dr. Purvis seems surprised by the twists and turns her life has taken, from mother to student to renowned child psychologist.

"It has just been an incredible journey," she said in her soft Texas drawl. "I often feel like someone coming down from Mount Everest on a slide, with the slide buttered. It has been so incredible that I have just held on for dear life," she said, with a laugh. "When I came back to get a degree I never in my fondest imagination thought that I wanted a Ph.D. but once I began to fall in love with research I knew that with really competent research we could change the world for kids. But I had no idea the magnitude of the windows and doors that would open to me."

Heather O'Neill: You went back to school later in life after raising your children. Did being a mom influence the research you are doing now?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: I have three children of my own. Beginning when I was a young woman I was working in the ministry on the streets of Daytona Beach. A lot of what we did there was working with kids on the street who were runaways. We did a coffeehouse outreach there on the streets of Daytona. I started fostering teenage runaways. These were kids who were doing drugs and alcohol, and girls who were doing prostitution for money. Many of them had run away from abusing or neglectful homes. After that, when my boys started coming along, we fostered other children in our home.

Heather O'Neill: When you say ministry, was that through your church?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: My husband and I were in the ministry together. It was a fresh-out-of-college program called US2, or United States for Two Years. They placed folks who had just graduated from college in outreach in places where there hadn't been outreach, working with motorcycle gang men and teenage runaways. My ideas about family and so forth began to form a lot there and then as we started having our own children I fostered other children in our home. The when my baby boy went off to college I decided to go back and finish my undergraduate degree and then went through a Master's program and then got a Ph.D. I got my Ph.D. at age 53.

Heather O'Neill: Did you know early on that you wanted to work with kids who had come from difficult circumstances?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: I have always been drawn the a child who has come from what I call "the hard place." When I was a teen I mentored at-risk children. When I was in college I was a Big Sister to a child who was an abuse victim. The first job that we had [in the ministry] was to set up a group foster home. This has always been my passion.

My first year [working at the Institute of Child Development], two moms came to us and said that they had adopted kids from Russia and Lithuania and that some things over time have gotten better but other things have gotten worse and worse and worse and would we do some research. It seems the at-risk child keeps finding me everywhere I go because it is my passion.

Heather O'Neill: What does TCU's Institute of Child Development do?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: The TCU Institute of Child Development has three primary functions. One is education for our students. We have developed a major and a minor and are working on some advanced degrees where when leave the Institute they leave uniquely informed and empowered... Research, is another. We have huge amounts of research of orphans in Romania. We've got research data on intervention studies... There is lots and lots in research about what is wrong with kids but our gift of research is what to do now. The third part of our work is about outreach [in the United States and abroad].

Heather O'Neill: What you are primarily studying are children who have been adopted internationally or through domestic foster care who have suffered different levels of abuse and neglect. Which parts of the world do you see as having the biggest problems with adoptees and how do you counsel these countries to improve the situation for the children?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: We are seeing kids from all around the world [and] what we are finding is that the greatest period of brain development is in utero. So even if you are in the birthing room with the biological mother and you take a baby right from the hospital does not guarantee that there aren't serious issues.

Different regions of the world have unique problems. For example, when we first started researching families who were adopting we found that, if the child was in the orphanage for four months, on average they lost one month of development because there wasn't enough stimulation. But if you adopted a child from Romania they were losing one month per every three months in an orphanage. So Romania had the most notorious care at the time. There was overcrowding. There were just staggering numbers of children in the orphanages.

A little history lesson: When [Nicolae Ceausescu] was the president of Romania and Communism was reigning he wanted to build a mighty army. Women were forbidden from using contraception and the women were all working in factories where they were given monthly pregnancy tests to make sure that if you were pregnant that you didn't abort. Couples that were living in very impoverished environments were having a lot of children, all living in the same room with only a little bit of food. They were being forced to have children and if you didn't have five or six children for the state you were taxed. Ceausescu was executed on Christmas Eve 1989, and beginning the next week children were abandoned to orphanages in droves. It wasn't that parents did not love those children, it was that they did not have food or shelter for them, or even clothing. The system was not prepared for the weight of the orphans and in those early years the caregiver ration was abysmal.

And what happened was that [American] families began to see these children on the news and their heartstrings were pulled and so families rushed to adopt those children with no idea of the profound cost life in the orphanages had on the child's development. We had a lot of great people who were adopting children without any idea how to help them heal...

Many of those children came out of the orphanages with the backs of their heads flat and their eyes crossed, they had been in the crib for such a long time... In children adopted from the Eastern European block we were seeing a significant amount of fetal alcohol exposure, where people were so poor that they could get a higher amount of calories from alcohol than they could from food. The rate of exposure to alcohol there is very high.

In regions like China, we are seeing higher levels of toxins, like lead paint and refinery emissions that are presenting health problems in kids. In this country you'll see kids with high exposure to drugs in utero. In Africa there are going to be changes in their brains from starvation and malnutrition.

Really, every child that is available to adopt or foster comes from a hard place.

In 1999, Dr. Purvis developed the Hope Connection, a research and intervention summer day camp for adopted children, which she directs to this day.

Heather O'Neill: How do you handle kids in a camp setting who have such different issues and are facing such different obstacles and find a collective approach to healing them?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: Children from different regions have different chemical changes in their brains... but to develop into a healthy, whole individual every child has to have certain things: they have to have touch, they have to have affection, they have to have nourishment, they have to know they are precious, they have to know they are safe and they have to know that if they cry someone will come. So even though the kids have come from vastly different backgrounds, they all still need the same stuff.

We create a physical environment that provides the needs that have not been met. We feed them every two hours, we give them a play activity every two hours, we give them lots of water because one of the brain chemicals that fires is called glutamate, which is associated with violence. If the body is dehydrated it fires more rapidly. If you are familiar with Maslow's hierarchy, it is about basic needs being met. In other words, you can't think at a high level if you are hungry. You can't make good choices if you are afraid for your life. What he says is that the highest function comes from these lower needs being met.

Heather O'Neill: How do you accomplish that beyond food and water?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: By creating a sensory-rich environment. Think about what you do with a baby. You feed the baby, you change diapers and you hold and rock the baby. The baby is feeling your warmth, it is tasting your milk, and it is feeling protected. It is a sensory bath... We create an environment that we say is contact rich and sensory rich. We do things like touching them on the shoulder, looking them in the eye and touching them on the chin, and let them participate in behavioral activities that give them options and choices.

For these kids, it is their trauma and their abuse that is making them afraid. We always say, Sad kids act angry and scared kids act crazy." We treat those behaviors.

Heather O'Neill: Using Romania as an example, it seems that orphanage reform is something that your training could impact. Have you been able to have any influence in countries where the treatment of children in orphanages is the primary cause of their behavioral problems?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: Yes. We have had some impact and some voice in several countries and have an ongoing opportunity to revisit those things in terms of bringing about change. But when I speak to someone in leadership in another country I say to them, this is not a problem of your country this is a problem of our world...There are over 140 million orphans worldwide and less than 1 percent of them will even have a family again.

Heather O'Neill: How has your advice been received?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: I think that these countries are aware of the problem and they haven't been defensive. Maybe that is because I am able to say that this is a worldwide problem and I am able to remind them that we have abysmal care for many of the children in the country. But at the same time when I am doing a training in Ethiopia and I am saying, "If we can feed these children every two hours we'll help their brains develop better and help them grow into healthier adults," I am told, "But we don't even have enough food but for one meal."...They are up against a huge tide. If you've got one meal for your children a day in an orphanage, and you've got no toys and you've got only the staff you can afford, facilitating change is going to be very difficult.

I have been exceedingly blessed, both in this country and in others, to be able to try to cause influence at the care level and at the legislative level. So while I am able to work with orphanage workers, for example when I traveled to Africa, and visit the facilities and make some recommendations, at the same time I was able to meet with high ranking officials... Our work is blessed to be able to speak across the spectrum to care givers and legislators both.

Heather O'Neill: With all of the successes, there must be some really heart wrenching situation where not much can be done to help a child. How do you handle that?

Dr. Karyn Purvis: There are. At this very moment I can feel a little child in Ethiopia on my chest that probably didn't survive very long after I was there. (Chokes up.) To this very moment I can feel a six-year-old in my arms who tried to go home with me and two caregivers had to tear him out of my arms. To this moment I can remember a baby in Romania whose head was swollen larger than a helium balloon because she had water on her brain and I knew that she was dying, and that a 15-minute surgery would have saved her life.

There are children here in the United States... I can feel them, I can see them all. But when I get my most discouraged and overwhelmed by the great need and the fact that there is so much pain the traumas of the children I see haven't happened to me in 60 years of life and in 2 or 3 or 4 years they see more trauma than most of us will see in 100.

But when I get my most discouraged, one of my colleagues and the co-author of the book Dr. will remind me of the story of the man on the beach that he told me many years ago when I was weeping over the children. The man is walking down the beach and there has been a tidal wave and it has thrown all of these starfish up onto the shore. He is going down the beach and throwing them back into the water as fast as he can so that they won't die. A man walks by him and says, "You are a fool. You'll never get all these starfish back in the water." And the first man picks up a starfish and says, "No, I won't save them all, but here is one that I will." And he threw it back into the water.

I go back to that story many, many times. There are so many kids, and there is so much pain and there are so many horrible things that have happened to these children but I can do what I can do.

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