By the time 8-year-old "Audrey" mentioned to her godmother that she'd been touched by her biological father, he'd so normalized the ongoing abuse that she was unaware of its inappropriateness. Things happened fast. Her godmother reported the abuse to the Philadelphia police and her father was arrested. That may have closed the matter from a judicial perspective, but it did nothing to begin to heal the emotional psyche of a young victim of trauma. That responsibility would rest, as it has for thousands of other youth, with the Children's Crisis Treatment Center (CCTC).
"They validated my feelings, helped me uncover them, and made sense of my loss," the now 27-year-old Audrey told me this week. "A heinous crime committed, but my dad was still my best friend. And I lost my paternal family, too. CCTC gave me the opportunity to express loss and sadness in a way that I could not at home."
Audrey was dealt a tough hand from the start; she was raised by her godmother starting at two weeks after birth due to both of her biological parents being drug-addicted and lacking stable residences. Her mother already had five other children that she was not raising. But then, when she turned 5, her father won partial custody and visitation. Three years later, during the every-other-weekend visitation, the molestation began.
Audrey attended therapy at CCTC for a year and a half, at the end of which her counselor determined that she had made considerable progress in addressing her trauma. The CCTC therapist not only provided support to Audrey, but also to her mother, who struggled with the immense task of helping her child cope with this pain. Audrey credits CCTC with sustaining her while her father was being prosecuted, a process that required her testimony and that she carries with her today.
"I remember how unkind his lawyer was. How my paternal grandparents would not speak to me. How my father glared."
CCTC has grown enormously since its founding in 1971 as a research project by its founder, Dr. Louise Sandler. Today, under the direction of Antonio Valdes, it serves over 3,000 children and their families annually, as "a private non-profit agency that specializes in delivering behavioral health services to Philadelphia's children and their families," according to the website. "We are dedicated to addressing the impact of child abuse, neglect, traumatic events, and other challenges to early childhood development, and to assisting children in reaching their full potential within their homes, community and society."
That there is an immense need for such services is confirmed in the data. Nationally, 60 percent of adults reported that they had experienced abuse or strenuous family circumstances during childhood, according to a 2012 report by the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention. The same report highlighted that 26 percent of children in the U.S. will undergo or witness a traumatic event before the age of 4.
In Philadelphia, over one-quarter (29 percent) of students in grades nine through 12 reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for an extended period (two or more weeks in a row) in 2011, according to the CCTC website. Behavioral health issues often cause kids to drop out of school, and 70 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental-health disorder.
Thankfully, Audrey is a CCTC success story. She graduated from high school and college, and then obtained a master's degree in social work. Today, she helps at-risk children with mental and behavioral diagnoses and their families. She self-describes as an avid reader and creative writer — and a child therapist. Her greatest wish is to watch her kids grow up without having to experience the emotional ordeal that she experienced.
"Sometime back in the early 1980s, I started picking up my friend after work. She was doing a graduate internship in psychology at CCTC," he said. "I saw these kids getting on the school bus at the end of the day, cute and well-behaved. They seemed like any other children.
"When I asked her why they were at the center, she explained that most of them had been severely traumatized, and many of their tragic stories had appeared on the front pages of the Inquirer. They'd been witness to homicides, experienced repeated sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect, their homes and lives lost by fire, violence, and other life-altering events. At CCTC these injured children and their families receive high-quality professional help from a unique team of psychologists, psychiatrists, speech therapists, and social workers.
"CCTC continues to provide unique special services to Philadelphia's most vulnerable children, who've experienced the most extreme cases of abuse and trauma imaginable. In many cases it is the only source of help and hope for these kids."