No one but Maricel knows exactly what happened during the two years she lived abroad with her mother after her parents divorced. What Maricel’s father, teachers and counselors do know is that when she came back to the U.S., this little girl was deeply troubled.
A spiraling series of events left Maricel’s family overwhelmed and desperate for help: running away at age six, frequent anxiety and fearful crying at age seven, severe depression at age eight, her first attempt to hurt herself leading to hospitalization at age nine and additional suicide attempts and hospitalization stays after that.
But now, at age 14, Maricel has a bright and promising future that includes college, a career as a teacher, and a loving, supportive relationship with her dad and other family members.
The dramatic turnaround started during sixth grade when, after an attempt to hang herself with a belt in the school restroom, Maricel was admitted into the residential treatment program run by Uplift Family Services. After a period of intense therapeutic services to get her stabilized, Maricel returned home and went back to school, but this time with the help of a skilled team from Uplift Family Services who worked closely with her within the public school environment.
The team developed an individualized plan for Maricel to get her up to speed on school work in small structured classes, plus individual and group therapy sessions several times each week to deal with her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression. Therapists stayed in constant contact with Maricel’s dad and stepmother, sending home daily reports and meeting frequently with the family.
“The structure and consistency were extremely important for Maricel,” said Rita Barone, one of her Uplift Family Services therapists. “What we have pieced together of Maricel’s time with her mother were stories of being left alone for six or seven hours at a time – unfed, unbathed and unsupervised – when she was just four and five years old. So much neglect and so many broken promises are traumatic for a young child and led to self-destructive feelings that she would be better off dead.”
Thousands of miles away, Maricel’s father only knew that his little girl cried when she talked to him on the phone and begged to come home – not unusual behavior for a child whose parents were recently divorced. When his former wife’s family called to tell him they were worried about the care – or lack of it – Maricel was receiving, he immediately got on a plane and enlisted the help of the U.S. Embassy and Immigration Services to pull Maricel out of the harmful situation.
After arriving to California with Maricel, her father sought the treatment of psychiatrists. Maricel achieved little progress until the family was directed to Uplift Family Services.
Even with the one-on-one care and supervision of Uplift Family Services staff, Maricel struggled through the rest of that school year both academically and emotionally. Little by little, Maricel began to develop more insight about her mother’s behavior and positive feelings of self worth about herself. In seventh grade, Maricel was gradually re-introduced into mainstream classrooms, starting with one class and adding more classes as she progressed. By the end of the school year she had been invited to join an honors language arts class and was achieving outstanding academic results.
“Maricel has been able to redirect her anger of what she experienced away from herself,” Rita said. “She’s realized that her mother’s addictions and behavior were not appropriate for a parent and that she herself was not the cause of them. Maricel has forgiven herself and is working on forgiving her mom.”
Maricel’s mother's whereabouts are unknown. Her father has sole custody and a restraining order, which ended the mother’s sporadic and unsettling visits while Maricel continues to process the trauma of her early years.
This school year, Maricel is entirely on her own without help from Uplift Family Services. She uses a journal and art to help her continue to sort out her feelings and overcome remaining anxieties and fears. Attendance at a recent weekend conference on empowerment for young women also gave her a positive, reaffirming experience.
“Even at a very young age, children instinctively know that moms are supposed to love their children and want to protect them. If that doesn’t happen, a child can feel at fault, unloved and unlovable. Maricel’s journey was one of courage, bravery, learning and dedication,” said Rita. “We are all so proud of what she has overcome to become a confident young woman with hopes and dreams.”
Maricel expressed her own dream for the future. "Once I grow older – I'm not in a position to say what's going to happen – but if I ever retrieve my old home overseas, I'll turn it into a group home. That would turn bad memories into something good."
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