Nearly 18 years ago, Maria Ramirez gave birth to a baby boy at the age of 16. A child herself, she was unprepared and unequipped for the needs of a newborn. She had no money and few resources. She occasionally didn’t have enough food or clothing for her child, a fact she still harbors guilt over today. Compelled to make money to provide for her son, Maria dropped out of high school to work full time, but was forced out of the workplace by abuse at the hands of her boss.
Trauma is cyclical. It fundamentally reshapes the architecture of our brains, changing our actions, behaviors, beliefs, and expectations of others. Trauma’s cyclical nature often haunts families for generations, and recent research suggests that trauma may impact how the very makeup of who we are – our DNA – is expressed. Allies for Every Child (Allies) staff witness this pernicious cycle every single day. And while trauma can present enormous challenges to our children and families, recent research suggests that supportive therapy and other interventions can buffer its effects. Trauma-informed care has become the centerpiece of Allies’ approach to treatment in hopes of breaking this cycle of trauma for future generations of families like the Ramirez’.
When the Maria and her family of seven connected with Allies in 2016, they were in a dark place. Four of Maria’s children had suffered abuse at the hands of a relative. They were no longer safe in their home, requiring an emergency relocation to a new neighborhood and a new life. The family lived on the brink of homelessness, struggling to keep up with the rising rents in Los Angeles on one income, and now forced to relocate to new neighborhood without the community connections and social support that families need to thrive. Perhaps worst of all, Maria had given up hope of providing a better childhood, and better life, for her five children.
The Ramirez family began working with Alyssa, an In-Home Outreach Counselor in Allies’ Family Preservation program, and several interns in the Infant Early Childhood Mental Health Program in the fall of 2016. They began intensive therapy to heal the wounds of unchecked trauma, and comprehensive case management to work through the logistical challenges of starting over.
As Alyssa remembers: the early months were an emotional rollercoaster. Maria was morose, broken from a cycle of trauma that perpetuated itself from her childhood into her adult life, and now into her children’s childhoods as well. In her darkest moments, she confessed to Alyssa that she had contemplated suicide.
Together, they worked to stabilize her thoughts and feelings and help her recognize the small but persistent steps she was taking to give her kids a better life. Alyssa helped Maria give structure to her day, charting out a schedule that didn’t allow her time to dwell on the past.
Alyssa encouraged Maria to make time for her own goals – a high school diploma, enrolling at Santa Monica College, and a cosmetology career. They worked through her prior workplace abuse so she felt comfortable interviewing for jobs, and built her resume to make her a competitive candidate. She now has a fulltime job, which they both credit as a great shot of confidence for her self-esteem.
Alyssa and Allies staff sought stability from all angles. Allies helped secure three months of rental assistance to keep the family in their new home throughout their transition and treatment. Alyssa secured beds so that no one would have to sleep on the floor at night again. She found assistance to stay current on the LADWP bill to keep the lights on so the kids could do their homework. She connected them to attorneys to help navigate the intricacies of the legal system. She also found the family a dining room table, finally giving them a hub for nightly dinners, homework, games of Jenga, laughter, and family meetings that helped them heal.
Working with Alyssa, the family worked tirelessly to plug into their new neighborhood and build vital social connections that buffer toxic stress. Alyssa secured YMCA memberships for the entire family to give them a safe place to be active together. The kids joined a local Boys & Girls Club with access to creative classes, team sports, and new friends. Her youngest children joined youth soccer teams, excelling at the hobby that they practiced with their dad every night when he got home from work.
When the Ramirez family finished Allies’ Family Preservation program, Alyssa felt that they still needed additional support to get their feet on solid ground. She referred them to her colleague, Annette, in Allies’ Prevention & Aftercare program to continue case management and remain engaged in Allies’ social events – including Arts Festival, holiday parties, and more – that are the cornerstones of a healthy, supportive community.
Annette continued to build on the skills that each family member learned with Alyssa – helping her oldest son work on his resume and interview for jobs, and encouraging Maria as she nears the completion of her GED. When Maria’s oldest son recently became a father, Annette connected the young family to Allies’ prenatal resources to work on the parenting skills and baby bonding that will ultimately provide the baby with the nurturing, supportive childhood necessary to break the cycle for the next generation.
Though trauma is cyclical, history is not destiny. What struck Alyssa and Annette most during their time with the Ramirez family was not their trauma, but their willingness to work through it together as a family. Maria and her husband hungered for guidance and resources to break the cycles of trauma for their children. They followed through on every suggestion from Allies – be it therapy, medical appointments, meetings with attorneys, sports teams, or showing up to a community event. They allowed hope to exist for a better life, even when it was hard to believe. And with the support of Allies’ comprehensive services, they were able to lean into each other for the love and support they needed to find solid ground.
*Names have been changed