Boston College School of Social Work faculty member Theresa Betancourt, an internationally recognized expert in war-related childhood trauma, discussed her groundbreaking research at a major global conference in Beirut in late September.

Theresa Betancourt

Salem Professor in Global Practice Theresa Betancourt (Chris Soldt)

Betancourt, who is the school's Salem Professor in Global Practice, spoke at the four-day annual meeting of International Society for Social Pediatrics & Child Health, known as ISSOP. This year's event, titled “Children in Armed Conflict: Rights, Health and Wellbeing,” was attended by child health professionals from around the world.  

In a keynote address, Betancourt offered perspectives from her landmark 17-year study of emotional trauma experienced by former child soldiers. Chairing the address was Nick Spencer, M.D., past president of ISSOP. BC School of Social Work Dean Gautam Yadama and Associate Professor Scott Easton also attended the event.

A non-profit organization of health professionals seeking to share experiences and knowledge in social pediatrics and child health, ISSOP issues public statements on, among other matters, the treatment of migrant children at the U.S.-Mexican border, funding of pediatric-related initiatives or programs by the baby food industry, and the impact of austerity policies on child health and wellbeing.

The aim of the conference was to provide information about the effects of children exposed to armed conflict and its impact on their physical and mental health, and to serve as a forum for how pediatricians, child health professionals, and child advocates can respond.

 “It was a tremendous honor to speak at the event, but also an important opportunity to bring together the various topics that had been discussed, and to look at ways the allied health sciences could work together on them,” said Betancourt. “There is a critical role for pediatricians involving children in armed conflict, so the fact that ISSOP made this the conference theme indicates the importance they attach to the issue.”

Theresa Betancourt

VIDEO: Salem Professor in Global Practice Theresa Betancourt discusses her landmark 17-year study of emotional trauma experienced by former child soldiers.

Betancourt’s research in Sierra Leone has been cited as the most extensive examination of post-war intergenerational relationships since studies of Holocaust survivors. She has also undertaken projects in Rwanda, Uganda, India, Ethiopia, and the Russian Federation. Betancourt is currently involved in intervention studies to help promote early childhood development and prevent violence among families in extreme poverty in Rwanda, and works with refugees in Boston and in communities around the world.

She has devised her own child protection framework, SAFE, which reflects the basic and interrelated security needs and rights that are central to promoting child protection: Safety from harm; Access to basic needs such as food, shelter and medical care; Family or connection to “attachment figures”; and Education and economic security. The framework has been employed by Betancourt in India, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and northern Uganda, as well as by other researchers in Haiti, Pakistan, and Lesotho.

Her work in Sierra Leone remains very vibrant today, Betancourt said, with an emphasis on mental health services research and collaborations with development actors to test strategies for integrating evidence-based mental health interventions with youth entrepreneurship programs. A book recounting the experiences of Betancourt and her colleagues in Sierra Leone carrying out the 17- year study is also underway.    

 “As a faculty member from a school of social work, I appreciated having a forum in which to talk about my work, given that several health professions—pediatrics, psychiatry, psychology, among others—were represented at the conference,” said Betancourt, noting that ISSOP is preparing a statement summarizing key points from the Beirut meeting. “An interdisciplinary response is sorely needed to deal with the intergenerational challenges that result from war and other situations of violence globally.”

Sean Smith | University Communications | October 2019