For kids affected by domestic violence, Kansas program hopes fun can heal trauma

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Courtney Train spends her days going to nail salons, the pool and the dog park.

As a paid mentor and advocate for children ages 8 to 18 who’ve seen domestic violence at home or experienced it while dating, Train knows quality time — and fun — with a trusted adult can be in short supply for her clients.

So, she talks to them about safer sex. She analyzes media portrayals of relationships. She’s also taken them to the zoo, on college visits and to a county fair art competition.

“The idea of childhood is stolen from them,” Train said. “For them to just play, not have to think about adult issues, it's really powerful.”

Domestic violence centers across Kansas are often ill-equipped to serve the needs of older children and teens, instead focusing on shelter for adult survivors and the young children they bring with them.

“It's easy for us to think, ‘Oh, teens aren't an issue,’” Train said. “It does not seem like there's a lot of information and support out there.”

But thanks to a pilot project, Train, based in Salina, is one of six mentors at five domestic violence organizations across Kansas who have worked with older children and teenagers over the past two years.

Funded by a federal grant and coordinated by the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, the Empowered Families Kansas Project is trying to fill that gap in Salina, NewtonIolaPittsburg and Garden City.

The coalition said results from the first two years are hard to quantify, but look to be promising. It plans to expand the pilot to cover more of the state over the next year.

The mentors, like Train, help connect children with therapists. Older children receive guidance on career paths. That kind of long-term, individual attention is rare.

“Our services are crisis-oriented,” said Kathy Ray, director of advocacy education and rural projects at the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “But it’s often short term.”

In surveys, kids involved in the program and their parents say they’ve seen an improvement in grades, emotional control and communication between family members.

Rebuilding trust in adults is crucial, Ray said, because it helps children trust their parents again.

“Those relationships have often been undermined by the batterer, by the abuser,” she said. “So it's helping to rebuild that communication and relationship with the non-abusive parent.”

Train has mentored about 15 children since she started her role in December 2017. She said she’s taught them to give compliments, play games and trust family again.

“Usually at first, when I start working with the kids, they do not like their sibling. They’re screaming at each other,” she said. “It's been over a year, and the mom will tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, they're getting along and it's a completely different household.’”

It’s common for domestic violence programs across the country to lack services specifically for older children and teenagers, said Baonam Giang of Break the Cycle, a national organization that specializes in combating teen dating violence. Parents often don’t want to admit their children are dating, so they don’t know if they need to seek help.

“We know that young people are dating whether you choose to believe it or not,” he said. “They're having relationships in school.”

Abuse among teens often manifests in digital form, through cyberbullying or sharing explicit photos without consent. Violence in relationships is especially common for teens whose own parents have been abusive.

That makes relationships with other adults especially important, Giang said.

“It's really modeling to them what a healthy relationship is that they can see,” he added.

If those lessons are never taught, it can become a cycle, where a child witness to domestic violence can later become a perpetrator. Or the child can suffer from the effects of trauma well into adulthood.

“It's such a pivotal time in a person's life,” Train said. “That's where they decide the types of behaviors that they'll have, the types of relationships that they'll get into.”

Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ or email nomin (at) kcur (dot) org.

Original story published by Kansas News Service