2011-06-09 / Health & Wellness

Abused children find shelter from storm

By Michelle Knight

Five-year-old “Juan” was beaten frequently by his drug-addict father, often with a metal chain.

At age 9, Juan watched his mother, also a drug addict and a frequent target of her husband’s wrath, leave the family. Juan was left alone in the care of his father.

By age 11, the boy, tired of the many beatings his father dished out, managed to obtain a cellphone and call the police. But when Juan saw police handcuff and arrest his father, the boy regretted his actions, said psychologist Sean Schoneman at a victimization workshop at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks earlier this month.

“It takes a lot for a kid to lose that love for a parent; it really does,” Schoneman said, explaining the conflicted feelings Juan has for his father. “It’s amazing— there’s always that connection at some level.”

Schoneman, assistant clinical director of training at Casa Pacifica, has been treating Juan, now 17, for three years. The teen, who’s lived in a Ventura County group home for the past five years, attends the private school at Casa Pacifica in Camarillo.

Privacy laws and ethics restrict Schoneman from revealing Juan’s true name or details about his life and treatment. But the psychologist spoke about the services at Casa Pacifica that have helped Juan deal with the trauma he suffered at the hands of his parents.

Casa Pacifica is a nonprofit that was started in 1994 to help abused, neglected and emotionally disturbed children and adolescents.

The agency offers residential treatment, emergency shelter and educational services at its 23-acre Camarillo campus.

It also provides therapeutic treatment and family support services in communities in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

“I think what Casa Pacific did for Juan was give him a safe and stable environment where he could develop healthy relationships with others, particularly with adults,” Schoneman said after the daylong workshop at Cal Lutheran that included sessions on victims’ rights and the legal aspects of domestic and child abuse.

Schoneman said he doesn’t necessarily agree with all the diagnoses psychologists have given Juan over the years. Juan suffers from a mood disorder brought on by the abuse that doesn’t fit neatly into any specific category, Schoneman said.

The mental health specialist has used several forms of therapy with Juan, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. Through it, he said, Juan is learning that his thoughts and feelings, though confusing, are common for abused children.

“That’s sort of normalized those feelings and thoughts for him. . . . In other words, there’s nothing weird or abnormal about him,” Schoneman said. “He’s actually responding in a normal way to an abnormal experience.”

It also helps Juan to connect his thoughts and feelings with his behavior. So Schoneman has Juan write a trauma biography and they discuss it.

“It’s important for people who’ve been exposed to trauma to talk about it, and the more they talk about it the better they’re able to cope with it,” Schoneman said. “Ultimately it would be great for him to complete a book on his life and to be able to share that with others—that would be a wonderful thing.”

Juan and other foster-care teens and young adults are benefiting from a new program at Casa Pacifica. The transitional youth program is preparing them for adulthood by teaching life skills, such as how to write a resume, balance a checkbook and find housing. The free service is available to foster youths ages 16 through 25.

Schoneman said he sees hope ahead for Juan, whom he describes as independent, intelligent and a hard-working. The teen is considered a leader among his peers at school. Last week the high school junior visited colleges, and he’s trying to rebuild a relationship with his mother.

“I’m encouraged that he’s connecting with his mother,” Schoneman said. “(But) I think that’s going to be a long-term turbulent relationship. . . . He’s not necessarily going to always listen to her. It may be more of a friendship than a parental relationship.”

Schoneman said Juan may have difficulty managing other relationships.

But Juan may be eligible to receive adult therapy at Casa Pacifica. Available to all families on MediCal having parenting issues is Casa Pacifica’s Parent- Child Interaction program. The parent, wearing an earpiece, is given advice from a therapist who observes through a oneway window the parent playing with their child. MediCal is the state’s healthcare program for low-income residents

Kyra Requiestas, 22, who graduated this month from Cal Lutheran with a degree in criminal justice, said Schoneman’s session at the victimization workshop was motivating.

“It helped open my eyes to the realities at-risk youth face before they get help and after they get help,” said Requiestas, who plans to volunteer at Casa Pacifica and pursue a career helping troubled youth.

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