CINDY, aged 14, walked up to a life-size human figure drawn on a big sheet of paper on the wall. The figure was to represent the person who had hurt Cindy the most in her life. She was supposed to say whatever she'd always wanted to say to that person. As Cindy, a survivor of incest, stood there, the words didn't come. All she could do was cry.
Jason, a six-year-old boy who had been physically abused by his mother, walked up to Cindy and gave her a big hug.
``It was so weird,'' Cindy, now 16, remembers. ``This little kid was what we call a real `pistol,' and he'd never shown that kind of emotion in our group before. He was the last kid I would have expected to come up and hug me.''
Cindy and Jason were participants in a group program at the Parental Stress Center in Madison, Wis.
Called Children Helping Children, it brings together adult counselors, teen-age survivors of incest, and children aged 5 to 12 who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.
Fran Nelson, director of the center, says Children Helping Children was a natural offshoot of the center's existing programs for abusive parents. ``We were working with parents, but we weren't doing anything for the kids,'' says Ms. Nelson. ``Our thinking was, if we're going to break the cycle of abuse, the earlier we start, the better.''
Nelson got the idea of bringing teen-agers into the program while watching counselor Mary Boncher work with children at a local shelter for battered women.
``I was impressed with Mary's ability to get down and just be a kid,'' recalls Nelson. It was beautiful to see how she could get the kids to come out of themselves. I thought, if a grown-up can do that, why not use somebody closer to their age who needs some work, too?''
The people Nelson had in mind were the teen-agers in an incest survivor program at the Parental Stress Center. ``Some were still carrying around guilt,'' she says, ``feeling that what had happened to them was their fault.
``I thought it would be good for them to work with younger kids, so they could see how tender they themselves were at that age. On the flip side of that, the younger kids would see that, yes, people do survive this.''
Once Nelson got funding for the program, she hired Ms. Boncher to design and operate it. From the start, Boncher said she felt strongly that the teens should be regarded as co-facilitators of the group, not as clients.
The teens, however, also need support, says Boncher. After the 90-minute session with the children, the adults and teens meet for another two hours to talk about what happened and how it is affecting them.
Boncher comments, ``You can't just walk away from these groups and not feel. Sometimes my heart just aches afterwards, and I want to cry. That happens to all of us. We all need to talk about it - we all need support. And maybe the teens need a little extra.''
That's why the teens are required to be in either the incest survivor group at the Parental Stress Center or in individual counselings during their stints as co-facilitators.
GWEN, now 19, says Children Helping Children assisted her both during and after her participation three years ago. For her, she comments, getting into the program was ``a survival skill.''
``I had taken my father to court so he would get some help,'' she explains. ``I was concerned he was going to sexually abuse my sister, too. A lot of my reason for going to court was to stop that from happening.
``But the outcome of the trial was that nothing really happened, and my dad did abuse my sister. So, I felt, if I can't help her, maybe I can help someone else.''
A year after her father's trial, Gwen tried to commit suicide. ``I had sort of denied everything in my mind, and then it just blew up in my face,'' she says. ``I hit rock bottom. Then I took pieces of what I'd told the kids [in Children Helping Children] and used it to help myself.''
Children Helping Children involves two adults and two teens working with 10 to 12 children for 10 weekly sessions.
The first few sessions deal with getting to know an another and what happened in each others' families. The middle phase focuses on how the children feel about what happened to them and how to deal with those feelings.
``That's where we do lots of acting out,'' says Boncher. ``The little kids know we're really playing house.''
This involves various exercises, such as the one mentioned earlier of saying something to a drawing representing one's abuser. Or it might be doing the same thing with a sculpture the group made from junk collected in the neighborhood.
Here the teens are a catalyst for the younger children.
Looking back at her experience in the program, Cindy says, ``If I showed emotion, the younger kids knew it was all right for them to do that, too.''
From there the group moves into learning protective behaviors. ``For instance, we might do a drama around a situation like `what would you do if Mom and Dad were fighting?''' says Boncher. ``Well, you can't stop them from fighting, but you can get away to the neighbor's.
``Or if a parent comes home drunk, you don't have the power to stop the drinking, but you do have the power to split to your room and get out of the way.''
Many of these children have gotten messages from their parents that say, ``If you didn't..., I wouldn't....'' Thus, they see the abuse as their fault.
``There's a fine distinction we try to make with these kids,'' continues Boncher, ``that, yes, you are responsible for your behavior. But you are not responsible for how your parents behave toward you.''
BONCHER emphasizes that working with the parents while their children are in the group is crucial. ``Otherwise it's just a setup for the kids,'' she says.
``So, for instance, if we're working on anger, I'll let the parents know ahead of time that their kids might act out more anger at home for a while. And someone's always here for the parents to talk to if they feel something building up.''
Even so, there are no guarantees that the children will not be abused by their parents while enrolled in the program. ``But if it happens, the parent has a group to go to for support, and the kid has a group to go to for support. People's behaviors just don't change overnight. The process of change is backward, forward, and around in circles,'' Boncher remarks.
Since getting Children Helping Children off the ground in Madison, Boncher has moved to New York, where she also hopes to start a program similar to the one in Madison. She knows of only one other program like this in the country.
Boncher concedes that conducting the program as she's designed it takes more work than traditional methods. Counting the sessions themselves, plus the extra hours the adults and teens spend talking afterward, she says she could run two small groups on her own in the same amount of time.
``So I could cover the same number of kids working by myself,'' she says.
``But you wouldn't get all that happens when we're all together. There's a richness of what happens on all three levels - adults, teens, and kids - that is so much worth the effort.''