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Mending wounds that may never fully heal

Tiffany was 10 years old when she arrived at Mount St. Vincent Home. She’d been shuffled around the past two years, moved from place to place, each claiming they couldn’t provide the care she needed.

Her self-abusive behaviors—biting herself, banging her head—were too much for caregivers. Tiffany (whose name was changed for privacy) was physically and at times sexually aggressive toward others, she placed herself in dangerous situations, and had a history of running away. All of these were behaviors to be expected from someone in her shoes, because the young girl had spent the first eight years of her innocent life suffering at the hands of chronic abusers.

Tiffany came from a family an expert described as “highly sexualized.”

“There was a lot of sexual abuse going on throughout the family,” explained Kirk Ward, clinical director at MSVH. “When you see a family like that, what you read is probably just the tip of the iceberg.”

She was sexually abused by the mother, and there were reports of sexual abuse going on with her sister by their father.

“There is no report of abuse (with Tiffany) by her dad, but you can bet there was something like that going on,” Ward said.

Her parents were also substance abusers.

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“There was a lot of drug activity going on, a lot of back and forth, so they’re not really watching the kids,” he said. “Lots of people, lots of chaos, things happening to the kids that no one knows about.”

Within a couple weeks of her 8th birthday, Tiffany was finally removed from the home.

“That will always be an association for her,” Ward said, “my birthday, leaving my family.”

“It’s shocking it took so long to get her out,” he continued, “but that’s not uncommon either.”

Tiffany was placed in a foster home for four months, but removed because of her behavior. She lived in foster home number two for six months before being moved to a residential facility. She remained there for three weeks, the next facility for two months, and the third one six months, before coming to MSVH in January 2013.

MSVH, established originally as an orphanage in 1883 by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, is a treatment center for children with severe behavioral and emotional challenges due to mental illness, trauma, abuse or neglect. According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 3.2 million cases of “child maltreatment” were reported in 2012. Of these cases, 62,936 children nationwide were reported to have been sexually abused, 1,037 of them in Colorado.

When arriving at MSVH, the team assessed Tiffany and put together a plan applying the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, a developmentally sensitive approach to child trauma treatment.

“We put together a ‘brain map,’” Ward explained, “a measure of how she’s operating … and that in turn tailored the therapies we used for her.”

Because of the years of abuse, Tiffany suffered with dissociation, among other challenges, a term describing detachment from her immediate surroundings, and from her body, to escape reality.

“In order to survive that horrific type of abuse (a child) is going to have to dissociate,” Ward said.

Dissociation can be compared to feeling like being outside one’s body, he said, almost like watching the trauma happen.

“In the moment, that’s a good thing to have happen because it would be pretty awful to feel those kinds of things,” he said. “But if you continue to rely on that over and over, then that begins to become the way you’re interacting with the world, which is problematic.”

Treatments for children experiencing dissociation and other disorders are needed to regulate and calm them. Types of therapies beyond the cognitive behavioral approach at MSVH include play therapy, art, animal-assisted, tactile-massage, dance and movement, or music, to help therapists gently uncover traumatic stories that children often cannot verbalize—and allow healing to begin.

Tiffany’s treatment plan included art therapy, tactile-massage, and dance and movement therapy.

“Dance movement therapy … helps regulate through pattern and repetitive and rhythmic interventions,” Ward said of the treatment that may involve props such as scarves, hula hoops or streamers.

They began to see improvement in how Tiffany connected with and maintained safety with her body, her aggression and understanding boundary issues, Ward said.

“She also began going to Mass which is a little unusual,” he added.

While Mass attendance is not required, he explained, she must have had some experience of attending in her past. As a guardian of the state, she asked permission from the state to go.

“(Mass) is a time when you get some special attention, it’s peaceful, not a lot of noise, and there are a lot of adults around so you feel safe,” Ward said. “A type of spiritual connection is awesome too, that will help with recovery.”

After 18 months, about twice as long as an average stay, Tiffany moved to a more adolescent facility in June since MSHV is for girls and boys from age 5 to 12.

It is going to be a long healing process for her, Ward said.

“She was in a destructive environment a long time before anyone did anything,” Ward said. “She may never completely recover from that. But she was making progress; she felt connected here.”

> For more about Mount St. Vincent Home, visit www.msvhome.org

> April is child abuse prevention month. If you suspect abuse, call the state child abuse and neglect hotline at 1-844-CO-4-KIDS.


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