Those affected by homicide, assault and domestic violence are not just the people who perpetrate or fall victim to these crimes. Too often it includes children who have witnessed such an event or have lost a parent because of it.
Since 1998, Catholic Charities of Tennessee has tried to do something about this all-too-common occurrence. Its Hope program is a free resource for children and youth ages 4 to 18 in Davidson County who have experienced violent crime in their family or community. Started by a grant through the Victim of Crime Act and funded by the Office of Criminal Justice, Hope provides trauma counseling in individual and group sessions for children and transportation to attend these sessions.
“One of the great things about this program is its accessibility,” said Lisa McGovern, LCSW, supervisor of counseling services for Catholic Charities. “It really wants to remove any obstacles that people would have to receiving counseling. There is no charge for the program – it’s completely free – and we go to the client.”
Parents are required to give permission before any counseling can begin. In fact, parent involvement is a core requirement of the grant, and the process. Hope counselors meet with parents at the beginning and end of the counseling component, and once in the middle to check in and answer any questions the families might have.
In between those home visits, Hope coordinates with guidance counselors or the child’s teacher, to see students in three one-on-one sessions in the school setting, and then, typically, in eight group sessions in a community center of some kind. “We try to find one that’s convenient to the school and the home,” said McGovern. “Then the counselor takes them back home after the group.”
During these individual and group sessions, Hope counselors make use of interactive activities with the children to gently address difficult topics, like changes in emotions and behaviors after witnessing a violent event, stages of grief and appropriate expression of feelings, all in an effort to develop the child’s positive coping skills.
With once-a-week sessions, the whole process can take from three to nine months, depending on the needs of each child and family. If, at the end of the sessions it appears that the clients need more help, referrals are made to other counseling services.
“We are a short-term program by design,” explained McGovern. “We get in and provide some support, and as families need it, we hook them up with additional resources to create more stability within the family. We’re not just pulling kids out and looking at what’s happening with them. We really take a social work systems view: here’s a person within this environment, and so how do we strengthen the whole system as much as possible?”
Hope also offers free community workshops in schools and agencies throughout the county on topics such as recognizing trauma symptoms in children, conflict resolution, and dealing with peer pressure.
Although potential counseling participants may include children who have been directly or indirectly impacted by crimes such as physical or sexual abuse, child pornography, human trafficking, kidnapping and even DUI/DWI incidents, the majority of Hope’s young clients have been touched by domestic violence, homicide or assault. “We do have a smattering of other issues,” said McGovern. “We have had some that involve bullying, child sexual abuse, and a couple of robberies. For our second quarter this year, we’ve had 25 children affected by domestic violence, and 15 by homicide. In looking at the last two quarters, 21 were affected by more than one type of victimization.”
Many referrals to the program come through guidance counselors and teachers, but Hope staff also try to build and maintain relationships with other people who might be in a position to know children or families who could benefit from this resource. “We really try to be involved in the community, so that as many people as possible know about our services,” McGovern said. “We try to get out to every potential referral source.”
Additionally, Hope works to establish partnerships with other entities that refer children, like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities’ own Family Resource Centers, the YWCA, Metro Police and the Victim Intervention Programs through the District Attorney’s office.
Still, a good percentage of the referrals come from the parents themselves, even if they’re directly involved in the traumatizing situation. “We have had families where there’s been domestic violence in the home, and the parent is very much interested in the child receiving services, even if the issue is still going on,” said McGovern. “They recognize that no one wants to be in that situation when it’s happening, and most people will expend a lot more energy taking care of their kids and making sure they’re OK.”
To track results or outcomes of the counseling, children are given an assessment before starting and after completing the individual and group sessions. The TSCC – Trauma System Checklist for Children – is a measurement of symptoms: anxiety, depression, anger, post-traumatic stress and disassociation, which is being physically present but emotionally absent.
“Children might not always be able to articulate, ‘Oh, Mom is really anxious today,’ or ‘Mom seems fearful today,” McGovern said. “But because their parent is their lifeline – they’re the ones that feed them, clothe them and get them places – they’re very attuned to what’s going on with them.”
Using the TSCC pre- and post- data, McGovern reports that even though many of the program’s clients get just six months of counseling – compared to more intensive or individualized counseling programs – most of the participants experience a reduction in one or more of the measurement’s trauma symptoms.
“I think this service is really beneficial because it removes some of the traditional obstacles, like cost and transportation, that interfere with a number of people’s abilities to access the counseling that their children need,” said McGovern. “One of the things we see with the groups is that it allows children to recognize that they’re not the only ones who have gone through something scary or hard. And they’re able to connect with other kids who have gone through something scary or hard, and develop some skills.”
The Hope program is always grateful for donated space for group counseling sessions. Hope will also graciously accept donations of refreshments, bottled water and art supplies for the children in the group sessions. To make a donation of this kind, or to make a referral for Hope counseling services, contact McGovern at Catholic Charities at 615-352-3087, or ask to speak with one of the Hope counselors.