Early Career Psychologist Column
Spotlight on early career psychologists in the field of child maltreatment
By Helen Milojevich, PhD
Sara Taber-Thomas, PhD, has been a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Buffalo (UB), since 2015. She also serves as the director of the Psychological Services Center (PSC) at UB. The PSC provides a broad array of psychological services, including counseling and therapy for individuals, couples, families and groups; psychological assessment and testing; and psychoeducational workshops. Additionally, the PSC is the training clinic for the doctoral program in clinical psychology in UB’s department of psychology. As director of the PSC, Taber-Thomas oversees the clinical training of advanced clinical psychology graduate students, including training the students on evidence-based treatments (EBTs) for children and families.
Taber-Thomas's current research focuses on two primary areas: the risk factors for and consequences of child maltreatment, and the dissemination and implementation of EBTs for families at risk for maltreatment. Her overarching interest lies in research that informs our understanding of community-based behavioral health systems, in order to refine and enhance services available for high-risk families. Currently, Taber-Thomas is working on a research project examining facilitators and barriers of early implementation of parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) within 50 community mental health agencies. Clinically, Taber-Thomas is interested in disruptive behavior disorders, childhood trauma, behavioral parent training, and mindfulness-based interventions such as acceptance and commitment therapy.
Taber-Thomas graduated with a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Iowa in 2013 (APA accredited). While at the University of Iowa, Taber-Thomas worked as a graduate student researcher on a federally funded longitudinal study examining long-term consequences of child neglect. As a result of her involvement in this project, she became increasingly interested in the link between parenting and alcohol use in high-risk families, as well as children’s perspectives of their parents’ alcohol use and parenting practices. Her dissertation, which she defended in 2013, investigated children’s reports of deficient parenting and the prediction of concurrent and prospective behavior problems. However, because the clinic in which she was receiving her graduate training was focused primarily on the treatment of adults, she sought additional training during her internship at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in interventions for children exposed to trauma.
During her internship at the University of Oklahoma, Taber-Thomas participated in an interdisciplinary training program in child abuse and neglect, which allowed her to gain unique insights into the ways in which professionals from other disciplines confront the issues and challenges associated with child maltreatment research and practice. For example, through the training program, Taber-Thomas shadowed doctors and home visitation workers to learn more about how they served families affected by child maltreatment.
Following her internship year, Taber-Thomas headed to the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine to work under Amy Herschell. PhD, at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. The focus of her postdoctoral was to gain training in the dissemination and implementation of EBTs within community mental health systems, which allowed her to develop a better understanding of the system-level factors that might impact child maltreatment. Throughout her clinical training, Taber-Thomas always kept her hand in child abuse and neglect research so that she could maintain her program of research and stay up-to-date with the latest empirical findings relevant to her clients. For ECPs working in clinical settings, Taber-Thomas encourages that they remain active in their program of research as much as possible. Although this is often challenging, as internships and clinical practices generally do not allot time dedicated to research, Taber-Thomas notes that using existing data sets (either from previous stages in your career or through national archives) or working in collaborative teams can help maximize your productivity.
In addition to her research and clinical practice in child maltreatment, Taber-Thomas is also actively engaged in a variety of community-based partnerships. For example, in 2016 Taber-Thomas received a Varda Shoham Clinical Scientist Training Initiative Grant from the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology to examine community-based implementation of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy for mothers residing in a residential substance abuse treatment center. As part of this grant, Taber-Thomas has partnered with a local substance abuse treatment center, providing trauma-informed training for their staff in order to compliment ongoing PCIT services. Taber-Thomas also conducts regular trainings in trauma-informed care at preschools, shelters, and other early childcare settings throughout Buffalo. Moving forward, Taber-Thomas is interested in becoming more directly involved in research collaborations and partnerships with child welfare workers in the community as well.
Research and clinical practice with children and families coping with maltreatment and trauma can be highly rewarding and motivating, however, as Taber-Thomas alludes to, it is not without its challenges. One of the primary challenges, according to Taber-Thomas, are the professional silos that keep people from across disciplines from working together. Child maltreatment is by its very nature a cross-discipline issue that requires multidisciplinary relationships and communication. Unfortunately, due to differences in priorities, regulations and funding, often communication across the silos can be extremely challenging. Having worked in several different states, Taber-Thomas has also been confronted with the vast differences in child welfare systems’ organization and regulations at a state-level. As she puts it, “the child welfare system operates in various ways across the country, so with each move you have to learn the system all over again.”
When asked about her motivation to work with and conduct research about children exposed to maltreatment, Taber-Thomas replies that child maltreatment is clearly a glaring public health issue that is so complex that there is always something new to learn or change. She is also driven by the desire to help children get better interventions and services. Hopefully by intervening early and continuing to conduct research to inform novel interventions, researchers and practitioners in the field of child maltreatment can prevent more children from entering the system. Due to the challenges and complexities of child maltreatment research and practice, Taber-Thomas encourages ECPs to create elaborate support networks. She notes that having more advanced mentors who can provide feedback and advice is crucial for success in this field. She recommends using the resources around you to find a team of mentors and supportive peers. Moreover, mentorship does not end in graduate school. Taber-Thomas has worked hard to maintain past mentor-mentee relationships, while seeking out new ones at each stage of her career.
Taber-Thomas has already made remarkable contributions to the field of child maltreatment via clinical service, training, mentoring, and research. She is passionate about her multiple roles, and gives students and trainees opportunities to benefit from her knowledge. We wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors and thank her for her insights to our students and ECPs.