Inspiring New Hope: A Therapist’s Role In Healing

 

I’ve been a therapist at the Childhelp Children’s Center of East Tennessee for one year and a half, and I LOVE my job. Since my very first class as a counseling graduate student in spring of 2006, I’ve wanted to work with victims of child abuse, and I still find it amazing that I have been able to do exactly that and for an agency that’s involved in raising awareness on the issue at a national level. As we know from our own statistical data, the odds are that almost everyone has been affected by child abuse, be it directly or indirectly. My experiences have led me to want to do my part to help prevent further victimization of children, to offer support to kids who have already been victimized, and to help their families know how to help their children and themselves so that abuse doesn’t have to define their futures.

Megan McCarter Cates

Part of why I love my job is that it keeps me on my toes! I think most of my colleagues would agree that this is one of the most unpredictable fields a person can work in, because, although you may know you have appointments scheduled, you never know exactly what’s going to happen until those clients get here. As a therapist, I average about five appointments a day, then spend the rest of my time treatment planning, in meetings, consultations, trainings, writing letters to and/or testifying in court, and corresponding with significant others in my clients’ lives (caregivers, guardian ad litems, CPS workers, school counselors or teachers, etc.).

My ultimate goal of therapy for any client is to not have to come to see me anymore because they’re doing well enough to handle life’s curveballs on their own, with the help of their own support group of loved ones. Applying Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) helps me in this endeavor, as research supports its effectiveness in treating the trauma symptoms related to abuse (anxiety, confusion, mistrust, helplessness, etc.). TF-CBT also requires that a caregiver be involved as a support person throughout the therapy process, so that whatever the child learns, the caregiver also learns and can apply at home. It also empowers the caregiver to know how to help the child, and gives the child a go-to person with whom to discuss any lingering effects of the abuse and a common ground to help them communicate effectively.

As to my role in the investigation or prosecution of child abuse allegations, in these situations, the therapist usually sees the child and family more often than any other professional involved. Therefore, I’m in a position to be able to process the questions, concerns, or frustrations regarding the whole process as it continues, so the child and family are able to feel empowered to do what’s required of them for justice as well as hope for a future where these problems will have been resolved. Often this is as simple as confronting the fears the child has about what will happen in the process and correcting any misconceptions they may have that may be feeding these distracting fears, so they can feel more confident in the choices they’ve already made and the role they must play in the future proceeding. Due to my frequent and consistent contact with the child and family, I may also be asked to write a letter of recommendation regarding future contact with the perpetrator(s) based on my clinical information on the child.

My own personal experiences have made it possible for me to work in this field and stay energized. I understand the hurt, self-doubt, helplessness, and anger that these children and families feel, but I also know that they are all capable of taking the reins back from their abuse and setting their own courses for their futures. They may never get the answer of why this had to happen to them, but because of their experiences they have the advantage of intentionally choosing their own values in contrast to what they know is wrong and understanding why those values matter, as they’ve experienced their absence firsthand. No one can rewrite history, but as a therapist, I am able to help these children see that the pages from this point forward are blank, and they—not the abusers—are holding the pen.

One of the most touching stories I’ve encountered was a girl who had been abused in different ways by both of her parents. She was 13 when she told someone and was placed in a foster home that welcomed her from the start. Over the course of a year, however, she and her foster family struggled to keep hope alive while the court hearings deciding her ultimate fate kept getting delayed. It is very difficult for any client to accomplish all their therapy goals when they’re not even certain if they’re going to be safe from the abuser(s) in the future, but the beauty of therapy is that it’s not cookie-cutter; it’s tailored to meet the needs of each individual client. As she was ready, the girl opened up about her trauma history and faced her fears with me in therapy by exploring what choices she would still have even if the worst happened.

Slowly, her self-doubt and fear began to fade and there emerged this young woman who was learning she was still in control of herself and her own choices in spite of what she had been raised to believe and in spite of anything that might happen in the future. The challenge with her and her foster family was to make the most of the time they knew they had together, rather than live a half-life in fear of their time possibly ending. In the end, it worked out to where she was adopted, but the real success is that the client had challenged herself and succeeded in trusting another caregiver and knowing she deserved to be treated well by others before she knew the outcome of her own situation. She had known real, unconditional love and was able to hope, even if she had had to go back, that she deserved and could expect more of that love in her future.

I believe emphatically that any positive interaction, no matter how small, has the potential to inspire hope in another person. This is even more of a fact for children and families that are going through one of the worst experiences of their lives. Our agency is able to offer services in a comfortable, calm, child-friendly setting and the fact that they can receive four different types of services—advocacy, forensic interviews, forensic medicals, and therapy—in this one place rather than having to go multiple locations makes it that much easier for them to move beyond this difficult time.

I’ve had several comments from families that they feel safe and understood here, as therapy clients have the opportunity of interacting with our staff more often and over a longer period of time than clients who receive only one or more of the other three services we offer. At a time when safety seems to have been ripped away from children and their supportive family members, the positive human interactions they’re able to have at our agency helps them to rebuild their trust in others and to learn again or for the first time that they deserve to be treated well by others. We also help them accept the fact that the abuse has happened, but give them the education and skills they need to understand as much as they can about what happened and what they can do to protect themselves and loved ones in the future. This gives them back some of the sense of control that was stolen from them when they were victimized, and is key to ensuring that they develop a healthy world view where trust is not blind but rather based on a true sense of awareness of themselves and others.

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