Astor Spreads Seeds of Growth for Mental Health Month

May being Mental Health Awareness Month reminds Astor Services of the phrase “April showers bring May flowers” to apply to any storm we weather. The new Astor logo now includes “a flower, representing our desire to help our clients blossom and flourish,” as our CEO Yvette Bairan wrote in her announcement about the recent agency rebranding. Jennifer Brody along with many of the counselors at Astor love METAPHORS, and as clinicians and supervisors, they often use these with our clients and supervisees. The metaphor of any helping connection being an opportunity for the helper to be gardener to “plant a seed” and be a witness and cultivator of all that can grow (and blossom and flourish) is very inspiring!

Read More…


BronxNet interview discussing mental and emotional health screening services in the Bronx

BronxNet host, Javier E Gómez, speaks with Raven Maldonado-Brown of Astor Services for Children and Family, about mental and emotional health screening services for children and families in The Bronx


Diálogo Abierto: Recursos Astor Services | Trasplante Exitoso del Riñón | Pro Arte Musical


El presentador Javier E. Gomez habla con Raven Maldonado-Brown de Astor Services for Children and Family, sobre los servicios de pruebas de salud mental y emocional en el condado de El Bronx para niños y familias. Luego, la cantautora Sophia Angelica nos cuenta cómo las redes sociales ayudaron a salvar la vida de su hermano Christopher, quien necesitaba urgente un transplante del riñón. Y por último, conoce el trabajo de Pro Arte Musical, una organización sin fines de lucro dedicada a la preservación de la música puertorriqueña. Our host, Javier E Gómez, speaks with Raven Maldonado-Brown of Astor Services for Children and Family, about mental and emotional health …

Read the complete post…

Now is the time to make a difference through foster care and adoption

All children who enter foster care have a goal of permanency, but what happens if a child is not able to return home? If those foster children are lucky, they are residing with foster parents who have made the decision to give that child a “forever home.”

Read the complete post…

Liberation Psychology

I first encountered Ignacio Martín-Baró’s liberation psychology when I volunteered for the Salvadoran Archdiocese Health Project in 1987. At the time, physicians working with the poor in El Salvador were persecuted. Aesculapius International Medicine, a small non-profit organization, responded to the Salvadoran Archdiocese’s request for health professionals who would be less likely targets of dollar-backed bullets. We would travel to towns in conflict zones to teach volunteers to diagnose and treat the most common diseases. Poor survivors in remote areas became health promoters for their neighbors. Seeds of liberation were sown.

Martín-Baró’s work continues to sustain me in my work as a community psychiatrist in the Bronx, New York. Since he wrote in Spanish, his work before he died was barely known beyond Latin America. After he, his five Jesuit university professor colleagues, their housekeeper, and her daughter were dragged into a university garden and shot in the head on November 16, 1989 by the US-trained Atlacatl Battalian,1members of the Committee for Health Rights in Central America translated some of Martín-Baró’s works so they could be available beyond Latin America.2His colleagues created the Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund, which has supported hundreds of community mental health projects in marginalized communities throughout the world ( With this paper, I offer liberation psychology as a resource for child psychiatrists.

Liberation psychiatry affirms the role of mental health professionals in identifying oppressive structures in our communities so that we might advocate for their trans-formation. In my Bronx context, it has inspired me to not only care for children affected by disproportionate minority confinement but to partner with the Osborne Association ( to advocate for children of incarcerated parents. It affirmed my work with AACAP’s Juvenile Justice Task Force that ultimately led to my co-editing the book, Mental Health Needs of Young Offenders.3It inspires me not only to diagnose and treat children affected by threats of parental deportation, but to participate in Physicians for Human Rights’ Asylum Network, wherein the voice of children and families fleeing persecution might be heard. It leads me to not only detect disorders affecting academic functioning, but to educate parents about their children’s educational rights. Liberation psychology invites all mental health professionals to root ourselves in our particular context, to detect structures that systematically inflict psychic harm, and to join in efforts for social transformation in the service of mental health.

A Psychology of Liberation

Ignacio Martín-Baró PhD, a Spanish-born, University of Chicago-educated, Jesuit social psychologist, was the vice rector of the Central American University in El Salvador during its protracted civil war. The tools he learned abroad left him helpless as he witnessed unspeakable horror. And so, Martín-Baró fashioned new tools that would bear witness to and support the spark of life and hope for liberation in the face of brutal oppression. Though these tools are relevant to an assessment of structural issues in all communities, they are still little-known outside of the Latin American context where they were born.

Martín-Baró’s liberation psychology was deeply influenced by the liberation theology flourishing amongst marginalized communities at that time. African American,4Asian,5and Latin American6theologians shed the notion of theology as reflection on a universal God. Instead, they saw God present in marginalized communities’ struggles for justice and peace. They spoke of God’s “preferential option for the poor.7” They noted that the Bible tells of a God who parted the Red Sea to liberate the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. In the Christian tradition, they reminded the poor that Jesus walked among them while he confronted oppressive structures. They affirmed that poverty was not an individual flaw, but the product of structural sin that perpetuates injustice.

Similarly, Martín-Baró focused not on an individual’s diagnosis but on the psychosocial trauma resulting from civil war. For El Salvador, war between a military-backed democracy and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) guerillas would last from 1980 to 1992. By the end of the war, 75,000 civilians had died, more than one million had been displaced, and among the disappeared, an estimated 3,000 were children.8The science of psychology had been used to inflict psychological, “low intensity” warfare that had high intensity effects: torture without visible scars, and propaganda targeting the hearts and minds of the people. All Salvadorans’ abilities to make sense of their reality were threatened by what Martín-Baró would call a “limit situation” – one that could destroy or spark inner resources to imagine a better tomorrow.2

Martín-Baró was ultimately killed by the war he described as a structure built upon violence, social polarization, and lies.9The creed of violence declared “might makes right.” Reason was used to devise military operations instead of fostering debate between conflicting social groups. As aggression replaced words, the roots of social relationships were critically damaged. Martín-Baró feared that many came to believe the solution for violence was violence itself.

Martín-Baró also stated that, with protracted civil war, the social fabric was dissected into factions: us versus them; democracy versus communism; and soldier versus guerilla. This polarization led to dehumanization of the other and created a “crack in the foundation of co-ex-istence.2” Individuals lived in a context that pressured allegiance to one side or another. Many tried to remain “neutral,” to dissociate themselves in an effort to survive.

The third facet of war was the institutionalized lie. Propaganda espoused images and a narrative that distorted reality. Contradicting the official story would place one at risk of being labelled subversive. As a result, many silenced their opinions and feelings or made vague utterances about “the situation.”

Martín-Baró sought to combat psychosocial trauma by identifying war’s toxic structure. He allied with those within and outside El Salvador who sought an end to war through peaceful negotiations. He created public opinion polls as a safe space for Salvadorans to give voice to their thoughts and perceptions. He was inspired by those Salvadorans who never ceased to believe that a just future was possible.

Relevance of Liberation Psychology for Child Psychiatry

Martín-Baró’s liberation psychology can serve as a resource for community psychiatrists who diagnose and treat individuals and families in the context of structures that inflict psychic harm: lack of access to health care and quality education; substandard housing; endemic community violence; lack of access to safe space for play; multigenerational poverty; and disproportionate minority confinement. We see children in families disrupted by incarceration, foster care, deportation, and untreated parental mental illness.

Psychiatrists witness the effects of structural violence in clinical encounters. We may feel helpless, overwhelmed, or, in the spirit of Martín-Baró, see ourselves as agents of structural transformation. AACAP was instrumental in advocating for the end of death sentences for crimes committed as a juvenile through dissemination of knowledge about adolescent brain development. AACAP also cites evidence of the harm inflicted by parent-child separation as it takes a stance against zero tolerance immigration policies. Child psychiatrists have the opportunity to increase chances for individuals to be granted refugee status through the Physicians for Human Rights’ Asylum Network. ( We can support medical students who are creating such asylum clinics as The Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights.10 We can educate parents about their educational, housing, and immigrant rights. We can inform them of recreational opportunities and scholarships. We can link them to legal resources.

Aware of the risks, Martín-Baró chose to remain in El Salvador, as he became inspired by the resilience and tenacity of those committed to heal a broken social fabric. He was inspired by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who not only survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust but created a new form of healing—logotherapy—that placed the search for meaning at the center of mental health.11Martín-Baró found meaning in the development of liberation psychology that would identify the roots of psychosocial trauma, so that they might be transformed. Liberation psychology invites child psychiatrists to work with one another, with our patients, and with other professionals to mend our social fabric in the service of mental health.


Take Home Summary

In the context of El Salvador’s civil war, the Jesuit social psychologist, Ignacio Martín-Baró, created a liberation psychology that can serve as a resource for community psychiatrists everywhere. It encour-ages mental health professionals to identify social structures that inflict psychosocial trauma and to work toward transforming these structures in the service of mental health.



  1. Bernabeu A, Blum CP. The road to spain: the jesuit massacre and the struggle against impunity in el salvador.
  2. Martín-Baró I. In: Aron A, Corne S. Writings for a Liberation Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1984.
  3. Kessler CL, Kraus LJ, eds. The Mental Health Needs of Young Offenders: Forging Paths toward Reintegration and Rehabilitation. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press; 2007.
  4. Cone JH. A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; 1970.
  5. Chung CH. Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; 1990.
  6. Burke KF. The Ground Beneath the Cross: The Theology of Ignacio Ellacuria. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press; 2000.
  7. Gutiérrez G. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; 1988.
  8. Voice of America. El Salvador’s Military Not Opening Archives For Missing Kids. VOA News. https://www. Updated February 27, 2018. Accessed August 4, 2018
  9. Martín-Baró I. La violencia política y la guerra como causas del trauma psicosocial en el salvador. Revista de Psicología de El Salvador. 1988;28:123-141.
  10. Emery C, Stellar K, Dubin K, et al. Student leadership in the creation and operation of an asylum clinic. Health and Human Rights Journal. https://www.hhrjournal. org/2015/11/student-leadership-in-the-creation-and-op-eration-of-an-asylum-clinic/. Accessed August 4, 2018.
  11. Frankl V. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Boston, MA: Beacon Press; 1962.


About the Author

Carol L. Kessler, MD, MDiv, works as a community child psychiatrist with Astor Services for Children and Families in the Bronx, NY, and is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Chicago, IL. Since 1987, when Dr. Kessler first volunteered in El Salvador during its twelve-year civil war, Dr. Kessler has worked with the Central American community in New York and as a voluntary consultant to mental health programs in El Salvador and in Mexico. She has documented her work in a chapter of the book, Disaster Psychiatry: Intervening when Nightmares Come True. She has been on the faculties of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

JAACAP Connect
Spring/Summer 2018

Read the complete post…

Astor's Early Childhood Program. Hard To Prove it Works. Easy To Know It Does.

by Virginia Hayes Sibbison, Ph.D.

To know the programs work, you only have to watch the kids,
talk to their parents and read the reports of kindergarten teachers.

Read the complete post…

Tips For Summer-To-School Transition

The new school year is starting soon! All families have to face the transition from summer to school, but if your child has learning challenges or behavioral struggles, that transition can be downright scary.

Here are some quick tips for getting your child (and yourself) ready for the year to begin.

Read the complete post…

A Journey From Egypt to Astor

Please read this letter submitted by the mother of one of our Early Childhood Head Start programs who writes: “This is how love is really shown as acts. This is what I experienced in [the] Astor Program.”

Read the complete post…

CEO: Ambassador in Chief

In a recent video, Dr. McGuirk explains why external/stakeholder relations is one of his top-tier CEO priorities, and why he plays the Ambassador-in-Chief role with gusto.

Read the complete post…

Healing With Mosaic

Healing With Mosaic gives insight into one of our integral programs– mosaic, led by Roberta Anderson and Kathleen Gavin. Children who are interested are encouraged to take part in the process. The art speaks for itself!

Read the complete post…

Preventing Blindness, Saving Sight

Astor Services for Children & Families knows – as data has proven – that children need a good start in life. The better the start, the more likely it is that children will be successful in school and be emotionally and physically healthy.

Read the complete post…

Suicide Prevention via Facebook

One of the most powerful tools for helping to prevent suicide is something every one of us can provide: being sensitive to signs that someone we know may be suffering from suicidal thoughts and not being afraid to reach out to them and provide support and resources.

In the past, this was most likely to happen during face-to-face conversations or over the phone. Of course, the times have very much changed.

An increasing amount of our communication with family, friends, and acquaintances is now happening online via social networking sites.

Therefore, with the increase in social networking, there has naturally been an increase in people sharing suicidal thoughts and signs on sites such as Facebook.

Read the complete post…

Honoring Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

In commemoration of Mental Health Awareness Month and Children’s Mental Health Day on May 7, 2015, Astor wants to draw attention to reducing the stigma around mental health, especially for children. 

For too long, the stigma surrounding mental health has prevented many needing treatment from receiving it.

Astor also recognizes the importance of early intervention and diagnoses in reducing the severity of mental illness.

Did You Know?

1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder. -National Institute of Mental Health

Suicide is a serious public health problem that affects even young people. For youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. It results in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. -Center for Disease Control and Prevention

40% of child abuse and neglect victims, receive no post-investigation services …

Read the complete post…

Making and Enjoying Hudson Valley Fare at Home

Laura Pensiero, the founder, owner, and creative force behind Gigi Hudson Valley, is a constant reminder that healthy food does not equate to less tasty food. Read more about Gigi Hudson Valley and their relationship to Astor in our blog and in the upcoming issue of Astor Family Magazine.

Read the complete post…

Early Childhood Programs Help Families Blossom

Jeniffer Rivera playing in the sandbox early last summer after attending school. Photo by Joel Weisbrod.

Jeniffer Rivera is just one child who has had a positive experience with Astor’s Early Childhood Programs. A year and a half ago, Jeniffer was introduced to Astor’s programs through the home-based component of our Early Head Start Program. The home-based program consists of a weekly, 90-minute home visit by a Parent Infant Educator (PIE) who supports the parents and child with information and activities on child development, parenting skills, nutrition, and health.

After a year of home visits, Jeniffer began school at our Wingdale location, where center-based nurturing rooms offer small groups of children ranging in age from six weeks through three years opportunities for individualized development through primary care giving, one-on-one routines, and exploration of interesting, safe materials in a child-focused environment.

“School has made Jeniffer blossom. …

Read the complete post…

Holiday Message from the Executive Director

While for most of us, the holiday season is filled with lots of joy and wonder, some of our children have never experienced the true joy of having a loving, caring adult in their lives. And most are from families that struggle to put food on the table not only during the holiday season, but throughout the year.

My hope is that when our kids look back on their lives, they do not focus on the trauma and the challenges, but the beauty they’ve experienced! …

Read the complete post…

Mugs for Sale

Ceramic mugs made by the children in the Residential Programs were featured during the St. Nick’s Holiday Craft Fair. At the end of eight weeks, over 40 mugs were handcrafted.

“The children imagine someone they don’t even know enjoying their coffee or cocoa in it later on, so they put a lot of heart into each one.”…

Read the complete post…

Pet Therapy Incorporated at Astor

For eight years now, volunteer, Pat Cortese, and her Labrador retriever, Angelina, mostly known as Lina, have worked with the children at the Residence in Rhinebeck. Lina is a therapy dog who provides comfort and a sense of safety, and helps keep the children keep calm.

“It is such a rewarding experience. This is such a tiny thing that Lina and I do to help make the children feel good,” Cortese said.

Read the complete post…

Magee Hickey – Continuing a Legacy of Giving

Magee Hickey, the accomplished news reporter with decades of experience at major television networks, including, NBC and CBS, and most recently at PIX 11 and NY1 has chosen to follow in her parent’s footsteps by supporting Astor.

“I was always extremely proud of my parents,” says Hickey, who describes having parents like Larry and Jean as “winning the lottery.” She does not mean in terms of money, but in terms of having great parents who set wonderful examples for her and her siblings…

Read the complete post…

The Ugly Stick

It’s not what you think.

Griffin showed us his Ugly Stick the other day with all the excitement only a kid can muster for an extruded piece of plastic. But in his hands it’s a wand to tame the Landsman Kill, lure the rainbows from their eddies and claim his small chunk of a Huckleberry Finn summer.

He told us about his love of fishing and the catch he had snared. And we realized he was telling us and showing us something we too often forget…

Read the complete post…

Family Counseling When You Need It

In 2013, over 1,400 families came in to our Mid-Hudson Valley Counseling Centers to receive assistance. They arrived with an array of challenges which afflict families during difficult times.

Astor’s team faces a tremendous challenge that they hope to overcome: opening the eyes of parents to the role stress plays in their lives and the lives of their children.

Read the complete post…