The 10-year old boy had emotional trauma he couldn’t express with words by the time he arrived at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home. His uncontrolled outbursts had caused him to be committed into the state’s care multiple times under the Baker Act.
In situations like that, the first step in correcting the behavior is getting at its cause. That isn’t easy.
Sometimes, though, a damaged child can open a window to their soul through the simple act of play. Their actions will speak what their words cannot. That’s the philosophy behind the play therapy room opened at the Home in April. That room was one of the first stops for this child upon his arrival at the Home.
Barbara DeFazzio, the facility’s vice president for residential care, told how the boy surveyed the room tentatively at first. Then, slowly, he reached out to three dolls and carefully brought them to his therapist, one at a time.
He then went into the kitchen area set up in the room and pretended to cook for the dolls, feeding them with love.
“He did all the things for the dolls that had never been done for him,” DeFazzio said.
Play therapy is a recognized way for children to help their therapists unlock hidden trauma. Sometimes it is the only way.
“Talk therapy won’t work with the younger children,” she said. “Kids lock the bad memories away; sometimes they don’t even consciously remember them. They know something is wrong in there and they know it is bad, but they can’t tell you what it is.”
DeFazzio is in her second stint at the Children’s Home; she was a therapist there in the 1990’s. That’s when the original play therapy room was built, but it fell into disuse as a storage room after she left. One of her first moves upon returning to Home in 2015 was to bring the room back to its intended purpose.
Armed with a $10,000 gift from a former board member at the Home, DeFazzio helped design a space which is divided into two parts – one serving young kids, and the other offering older teens a way to address their issues through music, a keyboard, Karaoke machine and a flat screen TV for videos. Design work took about six months; construction went quickly.
One participant at a time can use the room, under the watchful eye of their therapist. What the child does is up to them.
“We get the message across that this room is safe for you,” DeFazzio said. “You can do anything you want. Just don’t hurt yourself.”
Various local newspapers have reported over the years that the need for help for children is great. Florida’s over-burdened mental health system struggles to meet the demand wrought by physical abuse, abandonment and other societal maladies.
“The level of trauma I see now is so much greater than it was the first time I was here,” DeFazzio said. “What we are trying to do is to break the cycle.”
So, she was asked, what constitutes a win in such a tough situation?
“A win is when we get a child to say ‘I was hurt, it happened to me, but it’s over,’” she said. “We want to show them a world where they don’t have to be afraid.”
Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.