Help for survivors of child abuse and their families
by Kathy Hayes
One in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18, according to Darkness to Light, the leading child sexual abuse prevention organization in the United States. Left untreated, child sexual abuse can lead to short- and long-term physical and emotional health consequences such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), risky sexual behaviors, substance use disorder, and increased risk for suicide.
These are sobering realities, but there is a safe place for help. ChildSafe in Fort Collins is a comprehensive outpatient treatment program that helps victims of childhood abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, and their family members to heal. “The work we do addresses the trauma experienced in childhood to help our clients find their path in life and, with support, thrive,” says ChildSafe Executive Director Carol Bennis.
The demand for ChildSafe’s services has more than doubled in the last 10 years. “In 2019, we treated 839 clients and their families—more clients in one year than we have had in the organization’s 34-year history,” says Bennis.
Trained therapists use a combination of individual, group, and family therapy when working with children and adult survivors of childhood abuse. ChildSafe’s comfortable environment allows clients to feel safe enough to process the trauma they have experienced.
“Healing starts to occur the minute a child, their parents, or an adult survivor walk in the door and know they don’t have to keep that secret anymore,” says ChildSafe Clinical Director Val Macri-Lind.
After closing the office due to COVID-19, the clinic slowly began taking steps in late May to reopen and plans to continue with remote telehealth appointments and group therapy sessions. In-person appointments are scheduled on a case-by-case basis.
During the first appointment, Macri-Lind meets with parents, or an adult, to learn what happened, if there have there been other traumas in the person’s life, and if the case is in the criminal justice system. They develop a preliminary treatment plan and determine which therapist would be a good fit for the family.
“Parents are also traumatized and often don’t know how to talk to their child about what happened,” says Macri-Lind. “Therapy includes helping and supporting caregivers, which is healing for the child and helps create an environment at home where they’re supported.”
Experiential therapies such as sand tray, play, art, music, and journaling are especially effective with children and teens, she notes. “We have sand, art supplies, costumes, and toys to engage kids in ways that allow them to express [themselves] and process through their experiences.” (Supplies may be sent to the client’s home for use as needed.)
Children have loved interacting with Chester the therapy dog, and Chester loved being with them, too. When one little girl asked to dress up as a fairy, she wanted to dress Chester as a fairy, too. He willingly obliged.
“Chester was born to do this work,” says Bennis. “His presence is very calming, and he’s very intuitive. He’ll sense when someone is upset and will go to that person to be close and available for petting. He helps kids and adults regulate their emotions when they’re upset.”
Helping clients develop coping and regulation skills is a big part of the work that ChildSafe therapists do. “We explain that even though bad things happen, you can still be OK working through your experience, as long as you’re keeping yourself grounded in the present while you work through it,” says Macri-Lind.
There are several options for help paying for care including the Victim Compensation Fund, grants, a sliding scale based on income, and a specialist to check into any private insurance coverage.
ChildSafe also offers free group therapy and parenting classes for parents who are raising traumatized children. No referral is required, and anyone may attend. Check the website for up-to-date information on classes and therapy groups.
“Sexual abuse can be a very isolating experience,” says Macri-Lind. “Victims feel like they’re the only ones this happened to. Working through their trauma with others who have been through it too is something that individual therapy alone can’t do.”
2001 S. Shields, Building K, Fort Collins
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