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Learning through Experience

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

The following story is part of a young client’s healing journey shared by CAC Bilingual Trauma Therapist Valerie Cifuentes. The client's name has been changed to protect her identity.


Emily was 10 years old when she came to CAC for disclosures of sexual abuse. The first time she met with our Forensic Interviewer, she was not ready to disclose her abuse. However, a second incident led to her removal from her parent due to the alleged perpetrator being back in the home. As a result, Emily and her brother were placed in foster care with a relative, and a new baby sister was put in a non-relative foster home.

Emily started therapy with a previous CAC therapist but was not able to build rapport as the therapist left the agency. This meant that Emily had to start over with me as her new therapist in July 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. I had actually met Emily’s mother prior to Emily’s removal from the home and learned then that Emily’s mother was financially dependent on the alleged abuser and was pregnant and about to give birth when the abuse was disclosed. This was important information to know but also valuable information because it had been hard to determine the circumstances that led to Emily’s removal since there had been multiple DCFS caseworkers in a short period of time.

Emily presented with PTSD-related symptoms and would be very silent and visibly shut down in our sessions, and it was very hard to find a way to help her since I didn’t know what happened to her and didn’t have much access to her caregiver. In addition, DCFS struggled to provide us with critical background information that would have helped me help Emily through what happened. How do you help a child make sense of her trauma history when she was neither able to tell her story nor had anyone to advocate for her?


I felt completely helpless, lost and unsure if I was out of my depth, given that I was a new therapist myself, recently hired. However, I learned that I had to be patient and stop looking for the answers I didn’t have and just meet Emily where she was at. She challenged me in every way possible, but it gave us both an opportunity to grow.

Figuring her out was a puzzle to me, and we made a lot of progress in just being able to build rapport by playing in whatever way made sense to her. As the pandemic continued, we did virtual therapy, eventually switching to in-person therapy. We made my office her safe place where she could weekly come and play and build a trusting connection with me. As we built trust, she was able to use sand tray play to give me an insight to her internal world, her struggles and how she saw things, and this helped me so much in knowing how to support her when she verbally couldn’t tell me what was wrong and how she felt. The sand tray play helped her develop language and use third person characters to express feelings and be able to start to trust not only herself, but me as well.


As she built resiliency, language and awareness of her own feelings, I was able to start doing EMDR* resourcing with her. I introduced this tool to help her become more connected to feelings she wanted to feel like bravery, calmness and safety by using her safe place imagery when needed, and she used these tools to become stronger. I saw her bloom into a more secure, more talkative little girl, and then when we felt she was ready, she reprocessed her strongest traumatic memory.

Being in a room with her and helping her desensitize the strongest memory she had was so powerful in ways that words cannot explain. I watched her process and grieve and reminded her that she was okay as I guided her through the end of her processing. This was a huge win for her and for me because she trusted me enough to be able to re-experience something so unimaginable in order to heal from it. (This was also my first in-person EMDR session since I had been trained virtually! 😊)

We continued to do weekly therapy, and although Emily could not yet “speak” or discuss her abuse, she was at least feeling more calm, safe and free of the pain associated with the memories. We continued to develop skills, and Emily was finally able to acknowledge and speak about both of her traumas (the sexual abuse and the removal from her home). She was now writing her trauma narratives with me and was curious, asked questions, grieved and regulated her feelings all on her own.

She was coming to therapy weekly ready to talk and tell her story, and I couldn’t have been any more proud of her. She had completely blown me away at how much she had grown and developed her verbal capacity to speak about what had happened. There were many styles of therapy that I was stumped on when working with her, but the only thing that Emily needed from me was time. She needed things to slow down to her pace and her level in order for her to feel safe and take that step of trusting again.


Emily is doing very well and is now 14 years old. She was successfully discharged from therapy and graduated middle school, serving as the student commencement speaker! She is now a freshman who is excited to join activities and talked about wanting to go to college to be a lawyer in the future. She has taught me a lot as a therapist, and I hope everyone can learn something from her story of growth.

*EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing and is an evidence-based treatment for helping clients work through traumatic memories and manage their body’s response to those memories.


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