It started out as a reunion.
Eleven-year-old Charlotte and her four siblings had been separated in 2008 and dispersed across four homes in Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County. They had hardly seen each other since then, so their social worker had made a valiant effort to get them together at one of their homes in the summer of 2014. But that experience didn’t work out. The kids acted out afterward, so no future meetings were planned.
But when four of the five kids were assigned Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) in August and September, the CASAs and the social worker decided to give it another try. They knew from the kids how much it would mean to them to see each other again.
“We met at Charlotte’s group home,” explains Charlotte’s CASA, Fiona Harwich. “She had been in a dozen different foster homes by then, and she was the most sensitive to new surroundings.”
The kids enjoyed the get-together—it was Halloween, and all the candy probably helped—so the CASAs agreed to try to make it a monthly thing.
For the second meeting, the CASAs—the other two being Jennifer Gerich and Mona Mojarro—agreed that the kids would benefit from having an activity to do together during their visit, so Fiona contacted Special Spirit, a therapeutic riding center in Shadow Hills. Special Spirit donated a day’s visit, with a picnic, horseback riding, and equine therapy for all the kids. A date was set for the week before Thanksgiving.
Charlotte, not unexpectedly, got anxious as the day approached. The night before the meeting, she tried to leave her group home and had to be restrained. Fiona got a call in the morning warning her that Charlotte had hardly slept and might not do well.
“But when we got there, she was fine,” Fiona says. “She was given the smallest, most beautiful horse and was taught how to groom her. I think that was immediately comforting.”
The therapy part of the day started with teaching the kids coping skills and negotiating a new environment.
At one point, Charlotte’s horse, Apache, nipped her, but Charlotte didn’t tell anyone about it. She didn’t want to get Apache in trouble.
One of the volunteer therapists noticed it, however, and used it as a teachable moment.
“You know, we need our bubbles and horses needed their bubbles, so maybe you were in her bubble a little bit and that’s why she nipped you,” the therapist explained. “So why don’t you let your horse know what your bubble is and she will let you know what her bubble is.”
The therapy also focused on developing teamwork. The siblings would work together on getting on and off the horse, then one would lead the horse with the other on the horse’s back.
Equine therapy has been used to help people with a variety of physical and mental health problems, from gross motor disabilities to anxiety.
It often doesn’t involve riding. Horses share many social behaviors with humans, so it can be used by mental health professionals to give immediate feedback to a patient’s actions.
In Charlotte’s case, it helped her instantly understand the concept of personal space.
“For the rest of the day, she was talking about staying in bubbles,” Fiona says. “I think it really helped her feel that we had something in common to talk about.”
And that evening, Fiona got a phone call from her.
“Will Apache be okay for the night?” Charlotte asked. And she had lots of other questions: When can she go back to equine therapy? What day and time? Which other kids will be there? Can she bring carrots to feed the horses?
The experience seemed so helpful to Charlotte that Fiona got her enrolled in an eight-week equine therapy program at Special Spirit. And while it’s a huge responsibility not normally taken on by CASAs, Fiona, Jennifer, and Mona have agreed to continue to try to put together monthly reunions for the siblings.
Fiona visits Charlotte every week, and the last time they got together, she gave her some good news: Equine therapy will start again this week.
“Yay!” Charlotte responded. “When exactly?”