Cathy’s Story of Hope
In August of 2012, Cathy was excited to board a plane bound for Iowa to join her adoptive parents. With suitcase in tow, she waved goodbye to the medical workers, teachers, therapists and staff at Mount Saint Vincent Home who made this new chapter of her life possible.
Cathy has come a long way in her journey to overcome the effects of her horrifying past. When a social worker first found her in the fall of 2004, she was homeless, abused and neglected, living with her parents in a car. Over the next five years, she lived in a series of four foster homes and two residential treatment centers.
When she arrived at Mount Saint Vincent Home, the severity of her trauma was apparent; she did not make eye contact, did not want to be touched, was nonverbal, and had frequent violent outbursts. According to her case worker, Cathy endured what can only be described as years of horrific physical abuse. She was nine years old.
Cathy was low functioning cognitively and in a constant state of fearful agitation. “Her level of anxiety was through the roof,” said treatment therapist Susie Wiberg, “but notable to everyone was her deep sadness. Her sense of utter hopelessness was profound.” Cathy’s nearly uncontrollable behavior was a challenge for the staff. “There are other treatment centers that would have turned her away,” said director of development Kay Mcdowell, “but we were committed to help this poor child. We never gave up on her.”
Kirk Ward, Mount Saint Vincent’s clinical director, used the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) assessment to evaluate Cathy’s specific needs and determine which therapeutic modalities and treatment techniques were most appropriate.
Ward learned about NMT following a search for a relationship-based, trauma-informed model. “NMT is a developmentally sensitive approach to trauma treatment,” said Ward. “It’s an intuitive model that focuses on the elements that make people human and expands on innate instincts and skills. These include very natural activities like rocking and soothing kids, praising kids—actions that are simple to do but have big impacts on brain development. It’s not a blaming model in any way, so it makes it much easier to collaborate with the people working with the child. It’s all about moving forward with new techniques that can easily be implemented to help a child grow.”
The NMT model was developed by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally recognized authority on children in crisis and founder of The ChildTrauma Academy. The ChildTrauma Academy granted its prestigious Flagship Program designation to Mount Saint Vincent Home in July 2012, making it the fourth treatment facility in the world to earn the distinction.
Following the principles of NMT, Cathy’s days were highly structured and repetitive. She was told where she was going, how long she would be there, what she would be doing, and with whom. The consistency reduced her uncertainty and anxiousness, allowing her feel safe and secure. “Until she felt safe, she couldn’t begin to form relationships,” said Wiberg.
“It took us a long time to get to know Cathy because she didn’t interact with anyone for so long,” recalls Mcdowell. “When she finally did open up, it was clear she did not know how to play—how to have fun and just be a kid. We literally had to teach her how to play.”
Cathy had a strong tactile sense and used manipulatives such as Lego blocks to build elaborate structures. She developed a love of board games, spending many hours with staff members and other residents playing Monopoly.
Cathy’s treatment included art, music, and animal-assisted therapy. All were effective on different levels, but it was the animals that helped her turn a corner. “The unconditional love of the dogs resulted in a breakthrough for her,” Wiberg said. “She loved being with them and clearly felt safe around them.”
Slowly, Cathy began to improve. She formed relationships with staff and other residents. She started speaking more. Eventually, she learned to laugh.
By June of 2012, after three years in treatment, Cathy was ready to be placed with an adoptive family. Her case worker identified strong candidates in Iowa—a childless couple who were willing to work with a special child who required a high level of care.
The couple flew to Colorado for a five-day visit that exceeded everyone’s expectations. “The visit was absolutely awesome,” Wiberg said. “There was an almost immediate bond between Cathy and her prospective family.” Following two days of supervised visits, the couple was allowed to take Cathy off campus. They shopped for shoes and sunglasses, played miniature golf, visited the zoo, and, of course, spent many hours playing Monopoly. By the end of the visit, the couple agreed to adopt Cathy.
Just before she left for the airport, Wiberg asked Cathy how she felt about leaving Mount Saint Vincent. Cathy said, “I’m excited because I know my new mom and dad love me.”
Cathy is home at last.