Access to child and youth therapy is limited in the Puget Sound region and across the nation. When trauma, including domestic violence, are part of the equation, finding the right therapist for a young person can become even more daunting.
Liz Coleclough (who directs Counseling & Addiction Services as well as Project DVORA Domestic Violence Services) and her team realized the complex challenges faced by families experiencing domestic violence and other trauma, and thus, the position of Child & Family Therapist came into being at JFS.
“These parents are often struggling with the challenges of parenting as well as how best to offer protective and supportive interaction with their children. Plus, many survivors don’t have access to the financial resources to support child therapy,” Liz said. “We chose to add to our program in this way so that parents and families can feel confident with a provider who understands the specific circumstances that can emerge in a domestic violence situation.”
Erica Wickoda, Child & Family Therapist, has been with JFS in a variety of roles, including with Supportive Living Services and most recently with client intake. She continues to do client intake part-time and is also establishing the child and youth therapy practice embedded within the greater network of domestic violence, counseling and addiction services at the agency.
Erica describes her role as a natural extension of the holistic approach JFS takes and also makes it clear that her service is a distinct part of the bigger picture. “My client is the child,” she explained, “So, the child is at the center of all decisions. The child’s trust in me is so important that I work hard to engage them as a collaborator.”
According to Erica, children who have experienced trauma express that experience in a variety of ways. They may have difficulty in school, and that may present as an attention or focus issue. They may experience social challenges or regression, like bed-wetting or difficulty sleeping alone in their own bed.
Even an experienced pediatrician could have difficulty identifying the underlying issues without the benefit of knowing the crisis a family is undergoing. By having child-centered therapy as part of the larger suite of domestic violence services at JFS, Erica and her client — the child — can build a more fully informed therapeutic relationship from the start. Erica’s child therapy practice aligns with the principles JFS counselors and DVORA advocates utilize. Informed consent is core to the therapeutic relationship with children, just as it is for adults. It also means that if Erica is going to involve a parent, she takes special care to make sure there are no surprises.
“Kids who have experienced trauma have lost control. That feeling of loss of control can follow them through life,” Erica described. “By modeling a safe and healthy relationship with an adult in therapy, we create an experience where the child gets to reclaim some control and be the expert in their own experience.”
Erica is most impassioned when she describes the unique potential of early intervention for children who have experienced trauma. “In childhood and youth, brains are more elastic, so there is a greater capacity to learn new information, to reflect with support and ultimately to grow into the self they are meant to be — into their true and full and joyful selves.”