Coral’s Journey: Healing from Trauma

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by Sarah Davenport, FCNI Director
September, 16, 2020 -

Coral was 11 years old when her mom, recently incarcerated, decided to relinquish her parental rights, putting Coral’s care into the hands of the state. While Coral’s life up to this point was not like her friends’ lives--her “home” was either their car or a motel room, and Coral’s mom slept most days because she’d be up all night with her friends, leaving Coral to feed and take care of herself--it was the only life she had ever known. It was familiar. So when Coral was first placed in Emergency Shelter Care, everything terrified her; all of the new faces, new rules, new foods and even her new clothes made her feel like she’d been plucked from her life and placed on an alien planet. 

The plan was for Coral to be with her Shelter parents for only a few days while a more long term placement could be found and secured. In fact, Coral’s Social Worker quickly identified a long time FCNI foster family who were looking for an opportunity to adopt. She thought they might be a great fit for Coral. But before Coral could meet this potential family, life threw more curveballs. Unpredictable circumstances arose and Coral ended up having to change her Shelter placement a few times to accommodate for other foster youth’s needs and those of the foster families. After several weeks and a lot of team meetings with the foster-adoption family, Coral finally moved into her new home. 

Coral, like most children, handled life’s changes with adaptability and resilience. But unlike most children, the “changes” that Coral had experienced prior to moving in with her foster-adopt family weren’t just typical changes--they were traumatic. As such, Coral’s unhealed trauma triggered intense feelings of fear and rejection in her, which became barriers to her connecting with her new family or adjusting to her new life. To cope with feelings she didn’t understand, Coral withdrew from all social interactions, and started hiding from her foster parents and workers any time she could. She eventually became almost completely non-communicative, choosing to cover her ears whenever her parents’ and workers’ attempted to draw her out and engage. And school, a place where Coral had always excelled, became a place of intense fear for her. Coral threw tantrums every morning before school, and once there, she refused to work and hid under her desk all day. Coral’s foster parents were heartbroken for the young girl, and wanted to try everything they could to help her heal and reclaim her life. 

A first step towards healing for Coral started when she met Amy, her Rehabilitation Specialist (RS). RSs are critical players on a foster youth’s team--they are the specially trained workers who spend the most time with youth in their everyday lives, be it at school, in the youth’s home or even out in the community, helping youth to heal, grow, learn new life skills and more. With Coral, Amy wanted to build a safe relationship of trust with her so that they could connect. Coral’s team really wanted to help her heal by helping her learn and employ healthier coping skills. 

Amy and Coral were set to spend two hours a day together twice a week. During the first several meetings, the two hardly spoke; they just sat in Coral’s room with Amy sitting on the floor next to Coral’s bed as Coral hid under her covers. Initially, Amy shared minimally, she would quietly talk to Coral about her day or share stories with her. While progress was slow--a lot slower than anyone had predicted--Coral eventually started to engage with Amy. And their one-sided conversations eventually blossomed into real conversations with the two sitting side-by-side on top of Coral’s bed. 

Feeling safe with Amy, Coral shared her fears, feelings and wishes. Amy learned a lot about Coral during those afternoon talks, and she was able to help Coral separate her rational fears from her irrational ones, as well as offer up some ways Coral could handle her fears. While it first seemed like everything frightened Coral—from meeting new people to taking a new route to school to sitting down for nightly dinners with her foster family--Amy helped Coral identify what her real concerns were. Coral eventually identified that her greatest fear was being abandoned. Coral, Amy and her foster family worked hard to identify different tactics that the family could employ to help Coral feel safe and stable. For example, the team decided together that walking to school together as a family would help Coral feel better prepared for her school day and would communicate to her how valued she was by her foster family.

Amy also helped Coral learn better coping skills for when she felt herself starting to panic or retreat—such as taking space without hiding and deep breathing exercises. As Coral grew more confident in her ability to conquer her anxieties, Amy and she began to spend more time in the community. Together, they faced more of Coral’s fears, utilizing healthier coping tactics which boosted Coral’s self-confidence. At home, Coral engaged more readily with her foster family, including whole family activities. And when the family decided to adopt a bunny, Coral was very excited. Helping build the bunny’s cage and get their home bunny-ready increased not only Coral’s self-confidence, but also her confidence that she truly belonged with her foster family.

Coral has been living with her foster family for almost a year now, and she and Amy no longer need to spend time together. In fact, Coral is now matched with a mentor who she really enjoys, and together they’re continuing to explore and try new things. While Coral will always be a very sensitive person, she’s made great strides in her healing journey, and she’s grown to trust her own strengths and her ability to cope. Her foster family is now seeking guardianship of her, something that Coral strongly desires. While there are no guarantees in life, Coral no longer wants to hide away, instead, she’s ready to embrace it with both arms!      

To be a part in helping kids like Coral on their healing journey, become a mentor! Contact us at rbrinkerhoff@fcni.org and ask us how you can get started today.