After hard times, therapist seeks to help abused children

Published 8:04 am Thursday, April 5, 2007

When an abused child comes to the Sunshine Children’s Center, therapist Lisa Bryant sees more than a child who needs a stable environment.

She sees herself.

It’s not that she and her siblings went without necessities during her childhood. They always had enough food and clothing — anything they needed.

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The problem was her father, she said.

“He physically abused my siblings, my mother and me,” Bryant said.

For the first 15 years of her life, Bryant and her siblings endured abuse, she said.

“There’s a difference between discipline and beatings,” she said. “When you have to grab a belt, you’ve lost control.”

If a neighbor called the police, the officer would simply tell her father to “keep it inside the house and keep it quiet.” A lot has changed in Natchez since then, she said.

Finally, when she was 15-years-old, she’d had enough.

“One night, it got so bad, I ran away.”

That night, she stayed with a relative in Vidalia. When a police officer came to bring her back to her family, as had happened so many times in the past, he found her with visible bruises and her eye swollen shut. She didn’t go back home that night.

A judge placed Bryant in the Natchez Children’s Home. A few months later, her brothers and sisters followed.

“Going to the Children’s Home was the best thing that happened to me,” Bryant said. “Sure, it was hard. I missed my family. But it was a better environment. I was surrounded by a bunch of other children who had gone through the same thing.”

Without really knowing it, Bryant started her role as a therapist then and there. When scared younger children came in to the home, she and others would comfort them and help them along.

At the Children’s Home, Bryant found the support and guidance she needed.

“I saw what kind of a life (the volunteers) had, how they treated their family, and that was a model for me,” she said.

With that strong foundation, Bryant went on to earn her master’s in marriage and family therapy. Now, she works with children at the Sunshine Center who, like her, needed a strong foundation.

Bryant’s background motivates her to help abused children, she said. And since April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, it’s a chance to spread the word on the dangers and how to help.

If someone notices what might be child abuse, he should report it immediately, she said.

Sunshine Center Director Matilda Stephens agreed.

“What happens if you don’t report it, and something happens to that child, if they end up dying?” Stephens said.

“As a human being, what’s worse — having a friend or neighbor mad at you because someone showed up and asked if everything was OK, or not reporting it and having something happen?”

If people suspect child abuse, they should call one of the following agencies, she said:

4The Natchez Police Department at 601-445-5565

4Mississippi Department of Human Services at 601-442-7031

4Childhelp at 1-800-childhelp

4Sunshine Children’s Center at 601-445-2223, on call 24 hours a day

Preventing child abuse is as important as reporting the event after it happens, Stephens said. Simply opening up a line of communication with a friend or acquaintance can help relieve stress that they might otherwise take out on their families, she said.

“So many adults just need a sounding board,” Stephens said. “That can be way more helpful than saying, ‘go to a therapist.’ Most people are comfortable with their own little world. Sometimes we just need to be more aware of what’s going on around us.”

Mentoring children is another way to help, she said. From volunteering to play basketball with children at the Boys and Girls Club to serving as a coach or a friend, mentoring is a simple step to take.

“You never know what that kid’s going home to at night and what you might be doing to make a real difference.”

It was that kind of role people at the Children’s Home played in Bryant’s life who made a difference.

“There were a few special teachers and people at the Children’s Home who mentored me,” Bryant said. “The people at the Children’s Home believed in me.”

And that, she said, is what made the difference.