WIN: Changing the Future Today

Internship Photo - SiunaSiuna Morales began to notice a pattern: the women attending her domestic violence support group for mothers on public assistance, and the teens referred to counseling for truancy were struggling with the same thing—they’d had deeply traumatic childhoods.   These women and young men told her how they were still haunted by memories of their parents’ violent fights or how they’d been hit or abandoned from the earliest ages.  She saw them struggling to cope through drugs, drinking and risky behaviors—or by falling into aggression, depression and gang life.   And she began to think a lot more about the role early childhood experiences have in shaping adult lives.

“I wasn’t too familiar with early childhood mental health,” admits Siuna.  “I was under the impression it was predominately play therapy aimed at children ages 7 and above, but I had no knowledge of any work being done with infants and toddlers.”

Until now.

Siuna told her graduate advisor at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), that she wanted to find a way to stem the tide of abused adults and troubled teens far before they ended up at her program—or at the doors of Medi-Cal or juvenile hall.  Her advisor introduced her to the Westside Infant-Family Network (WIN), an innovative young therapy agency piloting an internship program—a program introducing master’s-level social work students to early childhood intervention in the hopes of bringing the best talent into this growing and critical field.  It was a perfect match, and in September 2014, Siuna began her internship at WIN with Diana Pineda, staff therapist, as her field supervisor.

Siuna credits WIN with helping her understand the potential and impact of working with children, prenatal through three, and their families.

“I always knew working with children would be a rewarding experience,” Siuna said.  “But, I never knew to what extent.  When we work with young kids, we’re working with whole families, and ending cycles of trauma that have gone on for generations.  We’re changing relationships, and better relationships make better futures.”

For the past seven months, Siuna has been working with Eric* and his mother, Angie*.  Eric was only 2.5 years old when Siuna began therapy.  Eric wasn’t talking yet and used a language of hitting, kicking, spitting, and tantruming to communicate.  Angie was overwhelmed and exhausted by her son, and had begun to disengage.  With Siuna’s support, Angie began to see how her own history of abuse was influencing how she parented Eric.  As her understanding emerged, her love and connection with Eric began to grow: she built routines into their lives and added more structure to their days, while softening her own anger and resentment into empathy and warmth.  Eric began to calm his own frustration and rage as he began to trust that his mother supported and loved him.

“It has been very rewarding to see how Angie and Eric have welcomed me into their home, trusted my judgement and clinical expertise, and begun to implement the tools we are working on together,” said Siuna.  “Therapy is not only empowering Angie but it’s also improving the quality of Eric and Angie’s relationship.”

In addition to her in-home clinical work, WIN trains Siuna in addressing domestic violence, postpartum depression, infant emotional development, child abuse and other critical issues.  She uses the feedback and observations of WIN’s experienced therapists to hone her own interventions, contribute new perspectives on theirs, and reflect on her own assumptions, challenges and learning.  She credits Diana, her field supervisor, with her growth as a therapist.

“Diana has been terrific.  I feel comfortable sharing my challenges and victories with her—she’s non-judgmental and thoughtful, and she allows me the opportunity to discuss whatever concerns, fears, or feelings are occurring throughout my experience as an intern,” said Siuna.  “She knows this work—and her detailed feedback helps me reflect on my clinical skills.  She is a great role model.”

While Siuna attributes her WIN experience as inspiring her to delve deeper into early childhood mental health when she graduates next year, Diana and the clinical team attribute the great experience they’ve had with Siuna in expanding WIN’s internship program: next year, WIN is opening its doors to interns from Cal State Los Angeles, Cal State Northridge and USC.

“I feel very fortunate for the experiences I am having at WIN,” said Siuna.  “It’s inspiring to know that by intervening early you can change the trajectories of whole families—and in time, whole communities.”