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Protecting Children: Counseling The Family After Abuse

Gulf Coast Kid's House

After a report of abuse has been made and an investigation begins, children and their families start mental health treatment with Lutheran Services, one of the partner agencies of Gulf Coast Kid’s House.

When it comes to treating children who have been victims of physical or sexual abuse, there is no straight path to healing. Therapists look at each case and the individual needs of their client as they approach a treatment plan.

Jessica Mayo is program coordinator and therapist at Lutheran Services Florida, explains therapists take into consideration a variety of factors — such as who the offender was in relation to the victim, how long the abuse occurred, and what other family issues might be going on.

“There’s all things that come into place, you can’t make a cookie cutter approach to therapy because you also want to see people as individuals, see families as individual units and focus on what their strengths are and what they’re needs are.”

Lutheran Services Florida has been a partner agency with the Kid’s House since its inception in 1998, providing individual, group, and family counseling to child victims, siblings and non-offending caretakers. Not all clients have active cases with the Kid’s House — some may come back as memories trigger later in childhood. As long as victims are under 18 and there is a report made, they can receive counseling at no cost.

Healing from childhood trauma can take anywhere from three months to years, said Mayo. Therapists work with their clients to set individual treatment goals, such as less panic attacks or less nightmares, when it comes to measuring success.

“Typically we have specific things we’re working toward when a family is in treatment, or when a person is in treatment. And so whenever they’ve accomplished they’re objectives and their treatment is typically when they know that they’re finished and those goals can differ based on person to person.” 

Credit Gulf Coast Kid's House
Jessica Mayo, program coordinator and therapist at Lutheran Services Florida.

According to its annual report, 56 percent of clients at the Gulf Coast Kid’s House are 6 and under. Lutheran Services counselors are trained to work with children using different techniques, such as play therapy, to engage with clients who may not have the language to express their feelings.

“Play therapy works by accessing the part of the brain that trauma lives in,” she said. “Quite often, it’s difficult to put into words to trauma whenever it happens, especially whenever a child is really young when it happens. You don’t necessarily have the cognitive, or the vocabulary to put to what happened and so the ‘doing’ part of playing, and actually engaging that part of your brain that does that type of stuff, makes it easier to communicate the feelings, emotions, actions and all of those things that happened.”

No matter the age of the client, Mayo says one common goal is to help children learn to label and identify at least six feelings.

“Being able to teach a 3-year-old that you have more than ‘I’m mad’ and ‘I’m sad’ feelings is important,” she said.

Part of the therapy process is also working with the siblings and family of the victim.

“When abuse happens, it happens to the entire family,” Mayo said. “So we get the whole entire family in, work with the caregiver, we even work with siblings if they weren’t also victims of the abuse because they’re impacted by what has happened the change and transition that’s happening in the family.”

In some ways working with a children’s advocacy center, like Gulf Coast Kid’s House, is beneficial to the overall treatment process, said Mayo. It’s a welcoming, kid-friendly environment with brightly colored walls. And with the Kid’s House collaborative approach between partner agencies, children only have to share their story once.

Robin Hicks was vaguely familiar with Gulf Coast Kid’s House before she experienced the process firsthand. When she discovered her husband had abused their daughter, Hicks sought help from the Kid’s House. Together, she and her daughter received mental health treatment to cope with the trauma.

As a parent, Robin said she felt a “huge amount of shame” about her daughter’s abuse. At the Kid’s House, she was met with compassion from the initial report to the last day of treatment.

“And that was huge for me as a parent. With a child that had been abused so I am very grateful for that,” she said. “Of course, as a parent you blame yourself and what could have been done. It was never relayed to me that any of that could have possibly been my fault. In fact it was very much the other way once I got into counseling. I learned how… how far away from the truth that was.”

“(It) was very changing for me as far as once I started therapy in that sense to deal with. How I had been affected personally.”

For more information, visit gulfcoastkidshouse.org