The animals giving neglected kids a second chance

They're some of our most vulnerable children who have endured harrowing experiences that could damage them later in life, but a unique therapy is giving whanau hope to heal.

"I wanted to get them straight into therapy so that they could enjoy a childhood that they were starting to miss out on," says Jan, a 60-year-old grandmother who is looking after her two mokopuna.

The kids grew up in a violent home, and as a result suffer from a range of psychological triggers, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jan's quest to help them led her to Willow Farm and child therapist Debbie Rowberry.

"Talking therapies don't work with children. A lot of them because they can't describe how they're feeling, or they're too scared to talk about how they're feeling," says Rowberry.

The 54-acre sanctuary employs horses and dogs, using them in various activities to understand what's going on in their head, by observing their interactions with the animals. That, coupled with the farm's tranquil settings, provide a calming environment for children with behavioural issues.

"They're in awe because they haven't been to an environment like this before, they often haven't experienced unconditional love. They feel that interaction, and that's where the magic starts," Rowberry adds.

Kids and animals at Willow Farm.
Kids and animals at Willow Farm. Photo credit: The Hui

The majority of kids Whaea Debbie sees are under the care and protection of Oranga Tamariki - like Jan's grandkids - and are referred by teachers or social workers to Willow Farm.

"I'm not interested in what's been written down on paper because that's not a true indication. What I'm interested in is changing their inner world, and that's not in those case notes," she says.

The programme is free to schools decile 3 and under, and caters to children from five years of age, right through to teenagers.

"They've either been through the likes of family violence, or they've been uplifted, so they're in foster care. What I'm seeing is multi-generational, so two generations ago there was family violence, and then the next generation family violence, and now this generation," Rowberry says.

"There has been no empathy demonstrated to them in any which way or form, there's no empathy in the system either, so how can a child feel empathy when there's been none shown to them? So by generating that bond, it's that natural growth of creating empathy within them, and the animals are a perfect way of doing that. As soon as they feel that bond, then that natural process of empathy occurs."

Sharon Rickard is a clinical psychologist with Te Aho Tapu Trust and works with children, rangatahi, youth offenders and women who have experienced trauma.

She says the first two years of a child's life are crucial to their brain development and trauma can leave a lasting imprint on their brain, and likely to have long-term, damaging effects.

"Instead of being in learning mode, they're in survival mode. Instead of our learning or language or things like that, we're just doing this survival stuff, so we're missing out, kids are missing out on that," Rickard says.

Willow Farm
The 54-acre sanctuary employs horses and dogs. Photo credit: The Hui

Something else many kids are being deprived of is spending more time outdoors and interacting with nature, which can also have an impact on their wellbeing.

"We've become a generation of complete disassociation from ourselves. The environment at Willow Farm helps you to be with yourself, and be comfortable with yourself, and not have to have a device. Because addiction is really a way of taking the uncomfortableness of being with yourself," Rowberry says.

Rowberry she's also noticed a huge gap in the state care system, and that's failing foster kids.

In New Zealand, children who have been uplifted from their parents aren't always provided therapy to support them through the trauma of being removed.

Jan's grandson has had four sessions of the animal therapy and she's been encouraged by what she's seen in such a short space of time.

"I've seen a big difference. It's an ongoing issue, it's not something that will change overnight, but it's getting better. It's still a learning process, for everybody so I'm not going to say it fixed it in 5 minutes, but it's a lot better than when they first arrived," Jan says.

It's all about creating positive, lasting memories for these tamariki.

"It's my job to increase the feeling of self worth, and along that process is a healing process, to increase the feeling of happiness and the feeling of hope," says Rowberry.

Where to find help and support:


The Hui