Driven to End the Abuse

Posted on May 09, 2018

Philanthropists from Sarasota team with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital to make life better for children who have been abused.

Kristin Hoffman, Ph.D., center, with Graci and Dennis McGillicuddy

Graci McGillicuddy read a newspaper article in November 1986 that changed her life.

The article detailed the brutal abuse of 18-month-old Shannon Nicole by her mother and stepfather, who eventually left the child’s lifeless body in a diaper bag at a hospital. Confused and outraged that anyone could so viciously hurt a baby, McGillicuddy dedicated herself to improving children’s lives and ending abuse.

“My mom and dad were amazing parents,” she says. “My mom was so overprotective, she boiled everything that came in contact with me. I never dreamt anyone could do the horrendous things that they did to baby Shannon Nicole.”

In the three decades since, McGillicuddy has rocked babies in foster homes, served on local and statewide boards and councils, and advocated with a passion for children. But with the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention reporting 81.6 percent of all maltreatment deaths occur in children under age 4, she realized one thing:

She needed to do more.

A Gift to Stop Abuse

McGillicuddy and her husband, Dennis, live in Sarasota, Florida. With the All Star Children’s Foundation, they are building a residential clinical treatment center for children who have been abused. The Center will open late this year or in the first part of 2019.

All Star Children’s donated $1 million, funded through a grant from the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital to establish the All Star Children’s Foundation Fund for Pediatric Psychologic Trauma and Intervention. The donation supported the hiring of Kristin Hoffman, Ph.D., as director of psychology trauma, who is charged with creating a nationally recognized center on the hospital's St Petersburg campus. She also will develop training and research protocols and consult on the design of the clinical program for All Star Children’s Center in Sarasota.

“It’s a fabulous collaboration of providing a safe-haven for children who have been removed from their homes and the culture of caring at Johns Hopkins All Children’s in designing the treatment,” says Graci McGillicuddy. “People just haven’t been aware of what’s happening to children, but associating Johns Hopkins All Children’s with it raises awareness.”

The McGillicuddys connected with the hospital serendipitously about 4½ years ago when Graci spoke about her passion at lunch with a friend who had worked with Jenine Rabin, executive vice president of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Foundation. Rabin connected them with Jonathan Ellen, M.D., president and vice dean at the hospital.

Everything clicked.

“Dr. Ellen fully connected with what we were saying about how the foster care system was failing children,” says Dennis McGillicuddy. “We agreed that we needed to develop a scientific and medical way to treat abused children.”

The McGillicuddys admire the dedicated workers on the front lines in the foster care system; however, they believe that most foster parents aren't equipped to deal with children who have experienced trauma and abuse. Also, they believe the bureaucracy drains resources and flexibility away from those who have an impact on the kids.

“The system fails too many of our children,” Dennis McGillicuddy says.

Turning to the Experts

The McGillicuddys’ goals meshed nicely with Johns Hopkins All Children’s plans for the Institute for Brain Protection Sciences. As a result of the All Star donation, the hospital recently hired Hoffman, who previously was director and principal investigator for the Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

“The stars aligned and great things are going to happen,” Rabin says.

Hoffman’s expertise is in studying trauma-informed care techniques—understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of trauma. She will lead research in that area in both St. Petersburg and Sarasota. The All Star Children’s Center research will focus on the most effective treatment for abused children in a foster/residential setting.

“The whole idea of trauma-informed care is helping others to understand trauma and its impact on kids so that we can better respond to them and provide them with services and care that make them feel healthy and safe, not just physically but psychologically,” Hoffman says. “I’ve never seen trauma-informed approaches integrated into programming in such a comprehensive way like we plan to provide to the children at the All Star Campus. That’s unique and exciting.”

The McGillicuddys and the hospital hope to develop scientifically proven, data-driven protocols that can be replicated at a state and national level.

“In addition to healing our children here locally, we want to create a template that can be used in our state and elsewhere,” Dennis McGillicuddy says. “The relationship with Johns Hopkins All Children’s will help us transform foster care through innovation, science and compassion. That’s on the back of our brochure and in the front of our minds.”

Eager to Start

The McGillicuddys are thrilled with the progress.

Construction is underway in Sarasota, where the All Star Children’s campus will include six residential homes that are each licensed for five children with waivers available when needed to keep siblings together. On average, children will be treated for about four months as residents. Over the course of a year, All Star Children’s expects to serve about 90-100 kids ages birth to 18 years old as residents and an additional 250 or more on an outpatient basis.

“We’ve been able to design an absolutely wonderful campus that will honor the children, give them hope, and make them feel special, nurtured and loved,” Graci McGillicuddy says. “It will be a place where they can heal and thrive.

“On our campus, all of our children are stars.”