(In this final post in the series, we see where Rachel is after the first nine years of her life. She is a survivor, but she’ll need a lot of help going forward. In case you missed the earlier posts, please go back to the first post, and learn just how much this young lady has been through. Once again, the bulleted points in the article suggest where interventions could have been made by the faith community that would have helped Rachel. Please consider your calling to the “Rachels” in your midst. Thank you, Chaplain Chris Haughee)
Through the tumult of the previous four years, Rachel and her sister moved into the third home and stayed there for a little over a year while her mom completed the requirements with social services needed to regain custody. Rachel’s dad never followed through with his substance abuse treatment and a permanent order of protection was filed with the court. Rachel & her siblings moved back in with her mom on her 6th birthday, and she was relieved that the singing and cake were forgotten in the hustle of paperwork and belongings and goodbyes.
Rachel was glad to be back with her mom, but wary of her ability to parent. Over the last four years, Rachel had been the most consistent person in her baby sister’s life. Now that they were back with mom, Rachel would frequently fake illness to stay out of school and be home with her sister. While Rachel’s mom wanted the best for her kids, she struggled with depression. When she worked, she struggled to find safe childcare. When she quit, she felt overwhelmed by financial burdens. She isolated from others. Stopped answering the phone when the school called about her son’s behavior concerns.
Her mother let Rachel take care of the cooking and cleaning. While the arrangement had its problems, it kept Rachel busy enough to avoid the anger, confusion, and fear that had built up over the last five years. Rachel could keep it all bottled up—except around her birthday. Then, the memories of mean daddy and restaurant police visits made the feelings too big to ignore.
On her 8th birthday, Rachel’s teacher lead the class in a round of “Happy Birthday.” Rachel began to scream at the top of her lungs, begging them to stop. Confused, the well-meaning teacher stepped in to contain Rachel’s flailing and screaming and got an elbow to her face for her trouble. Sent to the principal’s office, Rachel refused to talk and remained silent for the next two hours. During those two hours, the staff started to talk to each other about the girl who had flown under the radar. Rachel wasn’t a behavior concern. But she had no friends. She didn’t make eye contact with adults. She snuck food from the garbage during lunch. No one saw this outburst coming because no one really saw Rachel. Rachel had become skilled at hiding her pain and trauma, and an overburdened school system cooperated in Rachel’s avoidance. What would have made the difference?
- Schools are the most common place disclosures of abuse and neglect are made. Show support for schools by volunteering time with students or preparing projects for teachers. Start with the teachers in your congregation or the school in your neighborhood… you don’t have to adopt the “poor” school in town, because childhood trauma is no respecter of race, class, or income level.
- Write letters of affirmation to staff at neighborhood schools. The courage needed to advocate for a hurting child comes from the encouragement you feel from the community around you. Be that support system for the teachers and staff at your community schools.
- Stay informed about voter initiatives and upcoming elections that will impact school facilities and resources. When basic needs are met, staff are more able to focus on the “under the radar” kids. Support school board members and administrators that want to join you in becoming “trauma informed.”
Instead of calling home, the staff called in the school-based therapist. And while Rachel didn’t talk the rest of the day, she did play. She sat in the therapy office, diapering and feeding and cuddling the baby dolls. The therapist didn’t talk either, but she did create space for Rachel to feel just brave enough to return to school the next day. Rachel went home and told her mom about the baby dolls. Her mom listened, and agreed to get Rachel on the waiting list for therapy. That was a year ago. Three months ago, Rachel finally started therapy. It has taken so long for Rachel to start getting the type of help that will really bring healing to her deep hurts. What might have enabled Rachel to get that help sooner?
- Locally, there are significant shortages of mental health therapists. Encourage social service careers within the members of your congregation by hosting volunteer and job shadowing opportunities with youth groups.
- Invite local social service professionals to deliver the message Sunday morning or consider a special series in an adult Sunday school class on adverse childhood experiences. Brainstorm together at the conclusion of those learning experiences what God might be calling your congregation to do in response to what you learn.
- Support existing social service professionals by focusing mission opportunities on collecting supplies (therapeutic games or movies) or sponsoring activities (like summer camp).
Today, Rachel turns nine and still hates her birthday. But hopefully, by working hard in therapy, she’ll begin to understand why. She will learn what it means to battle Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how to feel her anger and worry and sadness without being consumed by them. Her mom will work in family therapy to learn about parenting an angry, worried, and sad kid instead of a perfect, quiet, sneaky kid. The ending to Rachel’s story isn’t a happily ever after. But it is an opportunity. For her and for each of us.
Note: Crystal Amundson LCPC, RPT-S runs a private practice in Helena, Montana, where she works as a child play therapist. Crystal specializes in Play Therapy, working with children ages 2-12, alongside their caregivers. She is a previous employee and current board member at Intermountain. Her passion and expertise is in the field of early childhood mental health.