No child is too young to avoid being scarred by domestic violence or abuse, says Cynthia Arreola, who manages New York Presbyterian Hospital’s program for treating the youngest victims of abuse.
“We know even when very young children are exposed to traumatic events, the effects can be harmful and long-lasting,” Arreola says.
New York Presbyterian’s Family PEACE – Preventing Early Adverse Childhood Experiences – Trauma Treatment Center helps begin the healing process for abused children up to five years of age and moves them and their moms toward being more resilient, Arreola says.
The program also trains hospital staff on how to effectively screen patients for signs of serious trouble at home. “We are talking about physical, sexual and emotional abuse,” says Wanda Vargas, the program’s lead psychologist. “It is often a partner who is abusive toward the mother and the child witnesses it … or the partner is abusing the child.”
The program provides clinical services to children and their caregivers who live in the Washington Heights neighborhoods of northern Manhattan – an area hard hit by cases of domestic violence and abuse. Therapists work to build a trusting and secure relationship between parent and child.
Most clients receive weekly, yearlong counseling designed to “help the parent understand the child … and, as the child becomes more verbal, we help them understand what has happened to the parent,” Vargas says. “And we develop a narrative about the trauma that has occurred.”
Nearly 200 families last year received counseling through the program, which is supported by a $400,000 five-year grant from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Key partners include the Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership (NMPR), a maternal child health organization that provides critical health and social services to communities throughout Manhattan.
Families are referred to the Family PEACE center through social service organizations, like NMPR, law enforcement agencies and the hospital’s clinics.
The trauma can manifest itself in children’s anger, aggression, sadness, despair, depression and regression – an inability to do things they could do before they experienced the abuse or violence. Without the early intervention provided at the Family PEACE center, these at-risk children wouldn’t make it in kindergarten, Vargas says. They would be expelled or placed in an outpatient behavioral treatment program.
“That is why we do this,” she says. “These are children who are scared. They are worried about their mom and their own safety. They don’t have much resources left to sit in a classroom and act like other five-year-olds.”
The program is making an impact on the population served, says manager Arreola. For 2016 participants, more than 50% of children had fewer behavioral problems; 75% of adults felt less depressed, and nearly 70% of them said they were less stressed because of the counseling they received at the center.
“We have the power to make change for the family and interrupt the intergenerational transmission of domestic violence,” Arreola says. “These young boys are not going to grow up to be batterers.”