In early 2018, seven-year-old Stella was playing with her next-door neighbor – a boy a couple of years older – when he suddenly pushed her to the floor. While she struggled, he climbed on top of her, kissing her and putting his hands under her clothing. Hearing a commotion, her mother ran to check on the children. Shocked, she called to Stella in a stern voice, “Come with me now!” After Stella explained what had happened, her mother left her in her bedroom, went to the kitchen, and kicked the wall as hard as she could. Stella sat alone and afraid that she had done something very wrong to make her mother so mad.

Stella’s mother called the police. At their direction, she took Stella to the Duke Child Abuse & Neglect Medical Evaluation Clinic, where the assault was substantiated. Although no legal action was taken, the police investigated and have continued to monitor the situation along with social services.

But this was not enough to protect Stella from the traumatic effects of the assault, and she soon began showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. She would cry uncontrollably, and her sleep was regularly interrupted by nightmares. She felt guilty, and she showed extreme levels of fear, especially when she had to pass the boy’s door coming and going from their apartment.

Stella and her mother came to the Urbaniak Clinic at CCFH in April, where they began Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). After only a few sessions, Stella’s trauma symptoms began to decrease. Her crying abated, and the nightmares went away. She began to talk about the boy as an annoyance rather than a cause for fear. Now, her therapist Whitney is helping her understand that her mother’s initial reaction was about keeping her safe, not being angry or blaming her. Whitney is also helping Stella separate what happened from appropriate feelings for her age, like wanting to have a boyfriend someday. There is still more work to be done, but Stella is well on her way to recovery.

Her mother, though, is still struggling with what happened and how to protect her daughter, especially since the boy still lives next door. Whitney is working with her on safety planning and how to interact with the boy’s mother. She has also engaged CCFH’s legal director Jan to ensure that Stella’s mother takes advantage of every systemic support available to her. Jan has helped her understand the investigative process and has talked to the police on the family’s behalf. She has provided information on tenant’s rights and written a letter to the apartment management, which has prompted them to take steps to meet the family’s safety needs.

In the Urbaniak Clinic, our first priority is a child’s symptoms of traumatic stress, but that always goes hand in hand with concern for the well-being of the family as a whole and making sure that a child’s parents or caregivers have every resource they need to support the child’s healing and future well-being.

Note: To preserve privacy, names and photos used here are representative, not actual.

Posted on January 22, 2019