Intervening in a Mother’s Life of Trauma

April 18, 2016
By Rebecca Rice, LCSW

I meet with one of my clients in her dilapidated apartment below a screeching BART line. Out on the street, drug deals are openly taking place and sex workers are visible through the broken windows her landlord refuses to fix. I try to ignore the rats darting across the carpet and the angry shouts of neighbors on the other side of the paper-thin wall.

Julia fled from her native Honduras to escape a torturously abusive relationship with a man who is a violent alcoholic and multi-drug abuser. He is the father of four of her five children, through rape. Her oldest son is currently in a Texas prison for gang-related activity. In a desperate attempt to support his mother and little sisters, he turned to the streets, but was apprehended during a drug deal that ended up being a set-up. The last Julia heard from her eldest daughter, she was in the northwest and was expecting a child of her own; she had been separated from Julia and rotated through the foster system.

Julia was living here with her former boyfriend when she became pregnant. He too was abusive. He would scream insults at her and throw her to the ground while her other young children were in the next room. He’d frequently threaten to call the authorities and have her deported. By the time her baby was born, Julia was so overcome with grief and trauma that she almost never left her apartment. She lived in fear that the police would find out she was undocumented and send her and her kids back to Honduras, where they would once again have to face her sadistic abuser.

Concerned about her profoundly depressed state, Julia’s neighbor brought her and her new baby to an infant play group run by one of JFCS East Bay’s Early Childhood Mental Health Specialists at a nearby preschool. A major goal of these groups is to equip new mothers with the skills and confidence needed to parent their children. During the group, my colleague observed that Julia and her new daughter were in particular need of further support and referred her to me.

Using the framework of our Fussy Baby program, I began providing infant-parent psychotherapy to Julia and her infant daughter, who was colicky. Through these interactions, I became aware of her history of trauma.

I learned that Julia had never told anyone about the violence she had survived. For the first time, our sessions created a safe space for her to process her trauma so she could care for her baby without passing the trauma on to her. In addition, I connected Julia with our staff Immigration Attorney and a legal services agency in San Francisco to help her get asylum in the United States.

Julia and her family have now come a long way. During our most recent visit together, Julia was excited to tell me about seeing her baby smile and delighting in their connection. She told me how proud she was that she was learning how to soothe her. Julia also reflected on her life and how far she has come, and about the future she envisions for her children.

I am humbled to work with a client like Julia, who is constantly working to heal and create a stable environment for her family. It is an honor to work for an agency that provides so much for the most vulnerable in our community. Every day, we directly impact the lives of those we serve and can positively alter the trajectory of their lives and those of the generations to come.

—Rebecca Rice, LCSW, Early Childhood Mental Health Specialist, provides in-home infant-parent psychotherapy and serves as an early childhood mental health consultant in Oakland preschools. She is bilingual in Spanish/English and joined JFCS East Bay in 2005.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect client privacy.