Sheila C. Johnson Center Celebrates 10 Years of Excellence


By Anna Katherine Clay

A decade after its founding, the Sheila C. Johnson Center for Clinical Services at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development continues to serve the community through telemedicine and other COVID-19-adapted safety measures.

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Second grader Claire LaPlante attends a virtual session with her instructors at the Sheila C. Johnson Center for Clinical Services. (Contributed photo.)

Two years ago, when Charlottesville-resident Claire LaPlante’s daughter, Olive, was in Kindergarten, Olive’s teacher noticed she was having trouble communicating. Olive also struggled with learning difficulties, particularly in reading and writing. So LaPlante took her daughter to the Sheila C. Johnson Center for Clinical Services at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development for an evaluation.

At the Center, Olive was given a full, 360-degree evaluation—a standard practice that is part of the unique, high level of care offered by the Center. She was diagnosed with an expressive language disorder, and she began language therapy with clinical students at the Center. Through additional assessments, Olive was also diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). The Center clinicians recommended regular therapy sessions to improve her speech, as well as reading assistance.

Olive began attending one-on-one sessions three times a week with the Sheila Johnson Center McGuffey Reading Service. She thrived with the personal instructional sessions, catered specifically to her.

But this past spring and summer, due to the pandemic, the services had to switch to virtual instruction.

Initially, particularly given her ADHD diagnosis, sitting still for virtual instruction was difficult for Olive. But as the weeks passed, she learned to adapt. And thanks in large part to the expertise of her instructional therapists, Olive’s reading began to improve. She also continued her speech therapy, where she had noticeable improvements as well.

“As an educator myself, I know that it’s not always an easy process to get kids identified, or zero in on the right recommendations," Claire LaPlante said. "The Center took a lot of the frustration out of that process. I’m very thankful for their expertise and level of service."

That individualized attention, direction and care are three of the reasons that the Sheila C. Johnson Center for Clinical Services has become a premiere provider of integrated clinical services for individuals of all ages.

The Center was founded in the Fall of 2010, after a generous gift from Johnson, a businesswoman, philanthropist, and former member of the UVA Board of Visitors. The Center’s mission is to implement high-quality multidisciplinary programing that advances state-of-the-science clinical services, training, and research related to child, family, community, and school-based mental health and educational needs, as well as to serve the Commonwealth through the provision of evidence-based interventions and assessments while providing a vibrant, welcoming, and safe clinical environment for students to learn and serve in.

Johnson was inspired to donate toward the Center's creation after bringing a family member for assessment to UVA and being impressed by the high level of care. At the October 2010 dedication ceremony, Johnson's mother, Marie Crump, described the family's hopes for the Center: "An open place where people can get the care they deserve is what human services is all about," Crump said. That's the "heart of the Sheila Johnson Center," she added. 

The Center has accomplished this over the last decade through a variety of services, specialties and innovations. With over 15 treatment rooms and observation booths, 20 onsite training faculty and staff, around 80 student clinicians, and five clinical operations staff, as well as state-of-the-art advances in facility technology, telemedicine, and COVID-19-adapted safety measures, the Center proudly serves over 1,500 individuals and families annually.

Services provided by the multidisciplinary training center include Clinical Psychology, McGuffey Reading Services, Audiology, Speech & Language, Autism Spectrum Services, Diagnostic and Educational Assessments, and Evidence-based treatment via Telehealth.

“What makes us wonderful and unique is that we are a legitimate community service center,” said Peter Tuerk, director of the Sheila C. Johnson Center and a leading expert on telehealth in clinical psychology. “This allows our students the opportunity to learn and practice in an ecologically valid, real-world setting. A lot of individual training programs do not provide transdisciplinary services or training, do not accept insurance, do not have electronic records, and aren’t scaled to serve the community in a meaningful way.

"We offer telehealth, evidence-based treatments, and conduct ongoing program evaluation to make sure our treatments are effective,” Tuerk continued. “Being able to learn how to get insurance pre-authorization in training is unique, and writing treatment plans that take into account the nuances of Medicaid or other constraints as part of your clinical training is important.”

The Center focuses on innovative, science-based treatments for patients, paired with measurement-based care. These enhanced capabilities and services have worked in tandem to allow the Center to “treat the whole child, and to allow families to establish a relationship with science-based clinicians in the community who know their children,” Tuerk said.

And that is a focus that families like LaPlante’s recognize and appreciate. “I knew they do outstanding work, so it helped me feel more confident in the results I got from [Olive’s] assessments,” LaPlante said.

When the pandemic swept across the country starting last March, the Center began relying on telehealth capabilities to a large extent. Thanks to recent investments in a modern digital infrastructure, electronic records, and extensive data tracking, clinicians were able to quickly pivot to remote care options. Throughout the pandemic, when a reliance on data and technology has been essential to a continuance of excellent care, the Center has continued to thrive.

Center clinicians, faculty, and staff have also worked to meet safe socially-distanced standards for clients who cannot get their needs met via telehealth and are comfortable with physically coming in for appointments. The Center is currently building a COVID-safe assessment suite, and will also be innovating with a virtual reality system to allow for the COVID-safe treatment of patients who have anxiety.

Throughout the last decade, the Center has continued to work hard toward reaching a diverse population. Tracking patient diversity statistics has helped the Center reflect the racially and ethnically diverse populations of Albemarle county in their patient population. Telehealth has allowed the Center to extend its reach throughout Virginia, an expansion that Tuerk hopes can ultimately continue even beyond state lines.

When patients come into the Center, Sheila Johnson Center psychologists, speech pathologists, reading specialists, and audiologists can collaborate post-evaluation to provide evidence-based services and training experiences within a transdisciplinary framework, including monthly meetings focused on this collaborative approach. In September, a speech student presented a case study where clinicians from multiple disciplines engaged and asked questions, “it really creates a wonderful synergy and learning environment,” Tuerk said.

Looking forward, the Center hopes to continue to expand offerings for families who show financial need via a newly established fund for underserved children and families, providing cutting edge treatments and care for a diverse clientele, while addressing traditional barriers to access.

“Providing access to services for children who need us the most is difficult, [particularly in a pandemic],” Tuerk said. “And once we get to them, it takes resources to deliver the services. We want to do that work to get into our communities, now with telehealth, we do not want to wait until after the pandemic.”

And the ever-expanding population of families receiving the Center’s services are grateful. Now seven years old, Olive has adapted to fall virtual learning and instruction both for her second-grade instruction through Greenbrier Elementary and her continued sessions with Sheila Johnson Center clinicians. Her reading has improved, as has her speech, and she is a happy, thriving second grader.

“They are really putting their thought and effort into her care,” LaPlante said of her daughter. “We are really just so grateful for the Center.”