Los Lunas, New Mexico
Linda Zimmerman, Founder/ Administrator
Rosella McCaffrey, Co-Founder/ Admissions Director

This visit report is a combination of the observations from Larry Stednitz’s visit on November 7, 2005 and Lon Woodbury’s visit in February 18, 2006.

Founded just over two years ago, Sandhill Child Development Center is a coed residential treatment program for ages 5 to 14. The youth attending the program live in a large, comfortable Southwestern style adobe home, nestled on a six-acre parcel 20 miles south of Albuquerque, NM. This rural setting is the backdrop for a variety of buildings and amenities, including horses and numerous dairy goats. Sandhill reminds Larry of a small, tranquil ranch style program.

Lon’s strongest impression was the quiet time in the living room. Just like a quiet evening at home with parents and their kids, the students were gathered around with the staff. Some students were sprawled out on the floor working on drawings or reading, while others cuddled with staff and talked quietly. The only thing missing from this tranquil scene was a crackling fire in the fireplace. The sense of safety, which is a vital need of these children, was obvious. Lon’s other observation was of the kids and staff playing basketball outside. The staff does everything with the children all the time. This type of socializing was one example of the program’s philosophy that helping children learn how to develop attachments or relationships is a major part of the healing process.

The center also works with innovative neurofeedback systems. This technology utilizes computer-generated games that read a child’s EEG, which requires him/her to modify or optimize brain wave frequencies to achieve a state of alert relaxation. One student demonstrated a couple games for Lon, which appear fun, challenging and very satisfying when a student succeeds. The students consider it a treat to play the games.

Linda Zimmerman, founder of the Sandhill Center, has a long history of working in and managing programs for young children. Linda has worked in various residential treatment programs, was director of another residential center and director of social services in a hospital setting. After dealing with the frustrations of the insurance industry and particularly managed care organizations, Linda chose to work in the private parent-choice industry.

Linda believes Sandhill’s success is due to the tenure, experience and stability of her staff. Linda and milieu director Christopher McCaffrey began working together in 1989. Clinical Director, Jonathan Mack, previously worked at Positive Impact and Rancho Valmora. The majority of the staff has many years of experience with the treatment model. With no turnover in childcare staff during its first two years of operation, Sandhill offers these children intense contact as well as the necessary stability. Linda attributes the low staff turnover ratio to two reasons: The staff’s dedication to the youth, and that the childcare workers earn nearly as much money as someone holding a master’s degree in New Mexico. Second, the program and staff share the attitude that childcare work is a profession and career, not just a stepping-stone to get somewhere else.

Sandhill uses a variation of the Attachment Model of treatment to address serious issues with the children. Linda believes the Attachment Model is effective with a variety of children, not only those diagnosed with Attachment Disorder. Often, children experiencing serious emotional and behavioral problems are also struggling with basic trust issues. Thus, to maintain their comfort zone they have to keep people at a distance. These children are not comfortable with close or intimate relationships and make every effort to drive others away.

Many of the program’s youth have difficulty in regulating mood and affect. Essentially, these children have controlled everything in their homes, and many are manipulative and gain pleasure at the expense of those closest to them. They often have little regard for others and everything in their life revolves around what will benefit them. They may actively sabotage all help or healthy relationships. Most of the children have low self-esteem, and when faced with limits they may exhibit anger, defiance and abrupt mood swings. Often, the parents feel like hostages in their own homes and to avoid a struggle, they become reluctant to set or enforce limits.

Sandhill helps these children learn to have healthy relationships and closeness is non-negotiable. The message to the children is “when you’re having a hard time, we need you to be close so we can help you; when you’re having fun, we need you to be close so we don’t miss out.” Sandhill has only two unchanging rules, “don’t hurt yourself or others,” and “we need to know where you are at all times.” The program attempts to create healthy dependencies and maximize human interactions by requiring children to ask an adult for everything they need and want. Rules and point systems are not used because allowing troubled children to “figure out” the system will encourage them to manipulate or sabotage their treatment. The staff provides constant feedback regarding the child’s behaviors and every effort to control, manipulate or create distance from others is therapeutic grist for the mill. Every interaction is an opportunity to teach the children that it is safe to have trusting relationships.

Linda attributes Sandhill’s strength to the following:

Longevity at the childcare level assures confident, competent care

  • Overall low staff turnover
  • Small nurturing family-like environment
  • A milieu driven treatment model
  • Intense and highly supportive adult/ child relationships
  • Integrated clinical services (a clinician is involved with the children during every waking hour)
  • EMDR and other trauma resolution work
  • Music, art and movement therapies
  • Experiential activities: Working with horses and goats, wilderness type activities, hiking, skiing and rock climbing.
  • Year round school schedules with appropriate breaks
  • Neurofeedback and other emerging/ promising treatment modalities.
  • Community service activities including the Pick of the Pound dog rescue & obedience training program.

Formal individual psychotherapy sessions are not used in the early stages of treatment. The belief is that formal therapy is more beneficial when the child is better able to self-manage their behaviors. Clinicians are present at all times to assist in working through in the moment struggles, when the work is most likely to be effective. The average stay at the program is 12 to 18 months, but occasionally, a child may leave after 6 to 9 months with intensive home-based support following discharge.

A heavy emphasis is placed on educating the parents on their child’s disorder and encouraging participation in their child’s milieu activities by modeling staff interactions. Parents are asked to visit every six to eight weeks. When a child is discharged, a childcare worker may enter the home for up to 30 days to help the parents implement the intervention strategies they have learned, and provide a seamless transition back home.

As Larry left the campus program, Linda took him to the local school where teachers employed by Sandhill create a normative school experience for the children in two classrooms provided by the school. The first classroom consisted of some of the more behaviorally difficult children, but they were quiet and attending well. None of the children acted out in either of the classes Larry attended. In one classroom, students were working on collages that represented their perception of their family’s history, which they will present to their classmates when finished.

By February, when Lon visited, the program had just acquired a new property where they will create an additional 16 beds. Built in the 1970s, this Mexico style adobe hacienda includes a main building with plenty of room for activities, a courtyard utilized for a barbeque, a cottage for visiting parents, pool, tennis court, and a barn – complete with chickens and horse arenas. The potential for this facility is tremendous. The need to expand is evident in Sandhill’s growing waiting list, and this move will allow the center to accommodate more children while keeping the numbers below 20 children at each site.

Working with young children requires a significantly different approach than working with adolescents. The attachment theory makes a lot of sense to both Lon and Larry. These seriously troubled children will need significant interventions over many years.