TAMPA — The 4-year-old screamed at the slightest raised voice or jarring noise.
She suffered fits of rage and, over the span of a few months, went from the potty back to diapers.
The girl's grandmother had taken her in after her parents abused her. But therapy sessions and a new home did little to shake symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
That's when the grandmother turned to a new University of South Florida clinical trial for children with post-traumatic stress. USF social work assistant professor Alison Salloum has been trying out a new way to counsel these children — basically, by giving the children's parents or caretakers the therapy reins.
The grandmother was part of a pilot program that launched a couple of summers ago. Salloum just got a $600,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health this summer to try the method with dozens more kids.
In this method, counselors from the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay act more as guides than directors as parents work through specific therapy steps at home.
The therapy is free, and parents get a small stipend for their time. The three-year grant allows for 64 children, ages 3 to 7, to test the method. The Crisis Center kicked in extra funding to expand the trial to another group ages 8 to 12.
Salloum, who's spearheading the study, says there are already several success stories:
• There was the abused 4-year-old who learned to control her anger.
• A 12-year-old victim of sexual abuse whose mother finally learned the whole story.
• A 9-year-old cancer survivor who came to grips with the fear of getting sick again.
Salloum calls it Stepped Care Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Children undergo two six-week phases of treatment, during which they talk about what happened to them, identify anger or anxiety triggers, come up with plans to improve behavior, and learn relaxation techniques.
Although trauma-focused care has been in vogue since at least the '90s, Salloum said through her method parents will take the lead and work through the bulk of the therapy at home.
"Through this parent-child relationship, they can overcome their struggles together," said Danielle Mercuri, a therapist involved in the study.
That's important, Salloum's team says, because of a historically high therapy drop-out rate. They estimated that about half of children in counseling quit before the therapy is completed, largely because it's difficult for parents to take them to counselor's offices while holding down full-time jobs, managing households or overcoming a host of other obstacles.
"This takes the parent and child step by step," said Melissa Thompson, another of the trial's therapists. Working with therapists also helps parents contend with their own issues.
But Salloum added that this goes much further than self-help. Parents have to check in regularly with Crisis Center of Tampa Bay therapists and work through certain steps before advancing to the program's final phase, which is focused more on maintaining gains. If children don't respond to the parent-directed method, trained therapists take over.
The reasons children might require the care are many, varied and all very unfortunate — the death of a family member, accidents, illnesses, witnessing domestic violence or being abused.
Salloum's team already has worked with eight children through a pilot program. She says she's sure there are many more out there who could use the help.
What does Salloum have to say about that? "Call now."
"So they can resolve it and get back on track with their lives," she said.
Reach Kim Wilmath at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.
Want to participate?
Anyone interested in participating in Salloum's study is urged to contact the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at (813) 264-9955.