For girls freighted with trauma, unique school offers path forward

Published on
July 22, 2014

Marlene hasn’t spoken to her mother since she was 7.

The memories she does have of her, an abusive figure mired in gangs and drugs, are entirely painful. “To this day, I cry about this lady every day, every day, every day,” Marlene told a room full of journalists last week during USC Annenberg’s National Health Journalism Fellowship. “What could a child possibly do to a person to have so much anger?”

Marlene, 17, spent much of her youth in foster care, where she still lives as she completes her senior year of high school while caring for her own 2-year-old son.

A couple years ago, Marlene saw herself slipping into her mother’s footsteps when a social worker told her she’d lose her son to adoption if she didn’t straighten out. She knows what foster care is like. “I knew that was not what I wanted to put my son through,” she said.

Key to Marlene’s recovery was enrolling in New Village Girls Academy, an alternative all-girls high school for girls in foster care, pregnant, parenting or facing other challenges. Students are given freedom to pursue semester-long independent projects instead of the far more structured environment of a regular school. Teachers become second parents and lay therapists. Transcendental meditation sessions takes place morning and afternoon, which students describe as essential in dealing with daily stress.

Mental health professionals say programs such as the one offered at New Village help young people who have experienced trauma to develop some of the first secure, trusting relationships they may have ever had. Although incoming students may be deeply distrustful of teachers and therapists at first, time and persistence can gradually restore their ability to sustain meaningful relationships – and to begin healing from trauma’s wounds. And trust is key before any meaningful learning in school or progress in other realms of life can occur, trauma experts say.

“I feel like all healing takes place in the context of a relationship,” said Dr. Jacqueline Atkins, a clinical psychologist at the Children’s Institute, a Los Angeles nonprofit devoted to helping children recover from trauma and violence. Atkins and others speaking during a Fellowship trip to the Institute say evidence-based therapies can help trauma victims come to terms with their past, but a trusting relationship is a precondition for their success.

In Marlene’s case, her path took a positive turn once she was willing to accept help from people who earned her trust. After a rough start in which she cut class every day, Marlene eventually embraced life at New Village and is now hoping to graduate this year. Her son remains the grounding force of her life.

Christa Hollis, a teacher at the school, connected with the girls after enduring her own traumatic childhood. As a teacher, she was drawn to New Village by a message from then school principal Javier Guzman on its website: “Perhaps your history is a little tarnished, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still have incredible potential,” Hollis recalled.

Nearly 50 percent of the school’s 140 girls, ages 14 to 21, are pregnant or already parents, according to Hollis. Many of the kids are struggling to overcome the same kinds of traumas she experienced.

The work is difficult, but the results have been impressive, especially this year. “We got girls into Berkeley, we got girls into UCLA, we got girls with multiple acceptances,” Hollis said.

Trusting relationships are paramount at the school and teachers don’t put up many barriers between themselves and students. That can lead to being on the phone at 2 a.m. with a girl who has just been raped, says Hollis, who makes herself available to her students at all hours and connects with them on Facebook.

“For us, that does become taxing, I’m not going to lie,” Hollis said. “I have nights where I’m crying with my kids. But when it comes down to it, a lot of these kids don’t have anyone else who cares for them that deeply, who becomes a part of their life on that level. Any violations of a barrier are for the greater good.”

A few blocks from New Village is the gleaming new headquarters of The Children’s Institute, where Dr. Manuel Rivera, a clinical psychologist, is among those charged with helping kids move past the trauma and abuse they’ve suffered.

“Part of the healing process is making meaning of what’s happened,” Rivera said. “With trauma, for example, it’s being able to go through that process, experiencing the emotion associated with that, but ultimately at the end giving meaning to the event.”

The Institute’s well-stocked art room offers one outlet for constructing meaningful narratives out of childhood trauma. Not long ago, Marlene visited the Institute with her school on a “Wellness Day” field trip. She was asked to do an art project depicting her feelings, starting with writing down a meaningful phrase.

That day, she scribbled: “Forgive to be forgiven.”

On one side of her canvas she drew a stick figure of her mother, on the other a stick figure of her holding her son. Her message to her mother: “You taught me what not to do with my child.”

The artwork now hangs on her refrigerator. “I get to see it every day and it reminds me of the purpose I’m living,” she said. “And knowing that I could have peace in my life, knowing that I forgave my mother.”

Photo by Gus Ruelas.