A time of transition: supporting children in shelter

Shelter isn’t easy for kids, but it can lead to a world of change.

Tyler was 15, Matt was 13 and Alicia was just 9 when they arrived at the doors of the Rosa Parks Crisis Shelter with their mother Nancy.

“I remember the first day that every family comes in,” says Keyra Carpio, Children’s Activities Specialist at Rosa Parks. “When I came down to meet with Nancy’s family, the three kids were tucked into their hoodies, silently checking their phones – doing everything to block themselves out from the situation.”

Nancy and her kids left an abusive father and a lifetime of instability, and were ready to start over free from violence. But the challenges they faced were extreme – one day after arriving at the shelter, Nancy was diagnosed with cancer.

Finding safety in shelter

Rosa Parks is one of Sanctuary’s five crisis shelters, the first place families go when escaping domestic violence. Home to five families at any given time, the shelter is a tidy, bright building with a backyard, a dedicated children’s room, and separate full apartments for each family.

Residents and staff treat the shelter like a true home and care for each other like family. Rosa Parks definitely challenges stereotypical expectations of shelter in New York City.

But entering shelter, no matter how welcoming or warm, is never easy, and holds extra challenges for children and teens.

“The first few weeks are always the most difficult for children and teens in shelter, but especially for Nancy’s family,” says Keyra. “Tyler, Matt and Alicia felt insecure and uncertain from being in such an unfamiliar place, and on top of that, now their mother had to navigate advanced-stage cancer.”

Transforming children, and moms

Keyra and the Rosa Parks staff help kids and families transform every day by providing extensive children’s and youth services on-site, for all young residents. Along with a dedicated Children’s Room for play, art and homework, Keyra plans an extensive art curriculum for every kid by age group.

Art, says Keyra, helps kids open up. “Just painting a self-portrait helps kids speak and share about themselves. Engaging with pictures and art let kids explore who they are, which is critical.”

Staff advocate for the kids to get them enrolled in school, and sort out any school issues that might conflict with shelter circumstances. Tutors come to Rosa Parks to help kids out with their studies.

Fields trips to museums and theater workshops take place at least once a month, and the staff takes advantage of every opportunity to throw a celebration, from birthdays to graduations to holidays.

Trips and parties aren’t just for kids – moms take part too. After moms and kids have experienced trauma from abuse, these group activities can help them come back together and rebuild their relationships.

A community pulls together

For Nancy and her kids, the Rosa Parks community played a crucial role in their journey from fear and abuse to safety and security.

“When Nancy was diagnosed, it was a drastic change for the family, even after all they’d been through,” says Keyra. “Suddenly, the kids had to take real responsibility, because their mom could not handle it all on her own.”

Nancy had to travel from Brooklyn to the Bronx daily for chemotherapy and radiation, and there were days, in the throes of her illness, where she did not think she could get out of bed.

The Rose Parks staff helped the family develop a plan for getting chores done, getting the kids to school and Nancy to her appointments. The family’s counselors and shelter staff held regular check-ins, planning for how to keep everyone going through the most challenging of times.

Slowly, the family pulled through.

Rebuilding a family through art

As Nancy progressed in her treatment and grew stronger, she began to spend time in the Children’s Room.

Inspired by the art projects hanging on the walls, Nancy wanted to do something for herself.

“Nancy wanted to feel productive and creative again,” says Keyra. “She came up with an idea to create an ‘art journal,’ documenting the challenges and joys of her time battling cancer.”

Soon, the entire family was taking part in this temporary relief from their day to day struggles. Over six weeks, they created six paintings, each one meaningful in a different way. Together, they represent the family’s long journey to safety and happiness.

A happy beginning

Six months after arriving in shelter, Nancy and the kids moved on to a transitional shelter. Recently they found permanent housing through New York City’s new LINC program.

Nancy is cancer-free, and her children have found their confidence again.

They plan to decorate their new home with their art.

This post is one of a series about children that we are sharing during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Visit our blog for more, and find out how you can speak out during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Leading children from fear to safety (part two)

Find out how our counselors work with children to break the cycle of violence.

This Q&A with Children’s and Youth Services Program Director Pam Krasner is part two of a series. Read part one. 

What sets your staff’s approach to therapy apart?

Pam: Much of what we do is help children feel safe. We do our best to create a non-judgmental, client-centered space. We focus on self-determination at any age – children already only have so much control over their lives and much of that is stripped away under domestic violence, so we work to restore that confidence.

We let the children lead. The topics they bring up, the stories they tell in play therapy – all of that informs our understanding of what is happening. When children are dealing with anxiety and fear, we teach them breathing exercises, just like an adult might try. We talk to them about healthy relationships. We make it clear that the abuse is not their fault.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Pam: Knowing that children can’t protect themselves. For Kasey, Carl, and Joey – the kids I spoke about earlier – when they were at Sanctuary, when they were with their mom, I knew they were safe. But their father still had ongoing visitation, and none of us could be there when they went to stay with him. It was hard to not feel worried about what might happen when he was in charge. This is not uncommon, and it’s why self-care is such a critical part of this work.

Despite the challenges, does this work ever bring you joy?

Pam: Absolutely. Seeing a child like Joey go from being delayed and afraid to laughing, walking and taking my hand? That’s incredible. Working with children, I see my role as helping to stop the cycle. I am working with kids during a time when I can really make a difference, educate, and show them an alternative path forward. That knowledge makes the tough times easier.

Sanctuary recently announced a new Strategic Plan that emphasizes expanding our impact on children and youth. What do you envision for CYSP moving forward?

Pam: First of all, expansion of CYSP is critical. We perpetually have a waitlist. We do not have enough resources to meet the extensive need for children’s domestic violence services in New York City.

Second, we are working on processes to identify the children of clients more quickly, assess their needs more fully, and intervene more effectively. I am proud of how we do all of that now, but as I mentioned, we sometimes encounter barriers to providing treatment, like when parents are resistant to services because they don’t think the children were affected. In these cases, it can takes longer for CYSP to get involved. There is definitely room for improvement.

Finally, I think we do a great job collaboratively and holistically addressing a family’s complete needs – guided by Sanctuary’s model. But we could be working more closely with lawyers, shelter staff, and other individuals involved. This is definitely a priority moving forward.

Pam, thank you for joining us today!

Learn more about the Children’s and Youth Services Program, and take part in all of our Domestic Violence Awareness Month activities. Check back next Monday when we feature a story from Sanctuary’s Rosa Parks emergency shelter.

Leading children from fear to safety (Part One)

Director Pam Krasner shares how the Children’s & Youth Services Program makes a difference.

Pam Krasner is an LCSW and the Director of Sanctuary’s Children’s and Youth Services Program (CYSP), where she oversees 21 counselors and support staff, and 6 interns, who serve over 2,000 children and teens every year. By collaborating closely with other Sanctuary staff, including lawyers, adult counselors and shelter supervisors, Pam and her staff can transform the future for an entire family.

In Part One of this Q&A conducted in honor of our Domestic Violence Awareness Month coverage of children and domestic violence, Pam shares why CYSP’s services are so essential to breaking the cycle of violence.

Thanks for speaking with us today, Pam! First question: what is the biggest myth you have encountered around children and domestic violence?

Pam: Domestic violence is steeped in myths and misunderstandings, and particularly around children. Many of the parents who come to Sanctuary seeking services believe that their children were not affected by the abuse.  They often state the children were too young to notice or believe the children were not impacted because they were not in the room at the time of the abuse.

But in fact, children are perceptive and can be impacted even if they are not eyewitnesses. Even infants can be affected.  Studies show that 80-90% of children living in homes with domestic violence can give detailed descriptions of what occurred.

So how does domestic violence impact children and teens?

Pam: Children and teens affected by domestic violence can experience an array of emotional issues – including guilt, anxiety, anger and fear. Exposure to abuse can result in developmental delays, hurt school performance, bring out aggressive behaviors, and affect physical health. Some children may experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even more startling is research indicating that boys who grow up in violent households are ten times more likely to become abusive themselves.

That said, all of these things are possibilities, not destiny, and there are many remedies to help children and parents address and prevent the effects of domestic violence. This is where CYSP staff can help.

How does CYSP work to remedy these issues? Do you have any real-life stories to share?

Pam: Recently I worked with a family whose story really illustrates all of the ways in which CYSP staff and programs come together to move our clients from fear and abuse to safety and stability.

My colleagues in the Legal Center were working with a woman named Mya on a major custody case. When I met Mya and her children, the oldest girl, Kasey, was 8, Carl was 5, and Joey was an infant, just 18 months.

These kids had witnessed their father horrifically abuse their mother, physically, emotionally and sexually. And the consequences of witnessing that abuse were clear. The older children had various emotional and behavioral problems. Joey was delayed, not walking or talking – he would scream incessantly when his mother left him in the childcare we provide for parents attending appointments.

My team sprung into action. Kasey and Carl were each assigned children’s counselors, LCSW staff who have specialty backgrounds in working with children who have experienced trauma. The family met regularly with their individual counselors, and then the counselors would meet together to check in and plan for how to address the issues that arose. This collaborative process is really critical to making a difference.

Along with counseling sessions, the counselors provided significant case management and educational advocacy on behalf of the children – with the lawyers, ACS workers and teachers and counselors at the children’s schools. We connected Kasey and Carl with tutors through Sanctuary’s Volunteer Program. We worked really hard to support the family from every angle possible.

Last time the family was here, Joey, the baby who once could not walk, rushed into my office on his little feet and took my hand, smiling and laughing all the way. The family overall is less anxious, and happier. It’s incredible to witness these changes.

This is the first in a two-part Q&A with CYSP Director Pam Krasner. Check back tomorrow as Pam reveals more about the work and the challenges faced by the counselors who work with Sanctuary’s youngest clients. 

Updated: read Part Two now.

Speak out during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Join us.