Healing through play

  • Article by: JULIE PFITZINGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2012 - 2:34 PM

A day treatment program at Washburn Center for Children helps kids with social, emotional and behavioral problems.

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Ezekiel Hassing, 10, and mom Teresa. After Ezekiel exhibited behavioral problems, the Hopkins family got help from Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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A drawing of a bright green rocket ship, complete with red flames, is proudly displayed on the refrigerator in the Hopkins home of Teresa and Brad Hassing. While at first glance it might seem like ordinary refrigerator-door fare, it is just one tiny example of how far the artist, their 10-year-old son Ezekiel, has come since being adopted by the Hassing family three years ago.

When and if Ezekiel would use crayons, everything was inexplicably black and blue. He was, in Teresa Hassing's words, "extremely hyper -- the fastest pingpong ball you'd ever seen going around the room." There were enormous temper tantrums, along with episodes at both home and school where Ezekiel would throw objects. Calls from school about his behavior became routine.

Ezekiel had been in foster care since age 5, with no contact from his birth parents. As his behavior problems worsened, he began participating in a day treatment program at Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis, which offers half-day sessions for children ages 3 to 9 who suffer from social, emotional and behavioral issues.

Although Ezekiel had graduated from that program just before turning 7, his behavior reverted significantly when he came to live with the Hassings, so they once again began working with the staff at Washburn to help Ezekiel overcome the serious trauma that was affecting his social and emotional behavior.

"He was old enough to remember his mother, but he had blocked out everything about the trauma of being abandoned," said Hassing. "We did everything the Washburn staff suggested. My husband would pick him up to soothe him when he'd get out of control, but he just kept us at arm's length in many ways. He didn't want us to get too close -- he didn't want to hurt any more." Eventually, reactive attachment disorder (RAD) was diagnosed, defined by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry as "a complex psychiatric illness characterized by severe problems in emotional attachments to others."

Not long after his 10th birthday, Ezekiel experienced a major breakthrough during a play session at Washburn when he talked to his therapist about his birth mother and the last time he saw her. Hassing said she will never forget the smile on her son's face as he walked out of the room toward her.

"He was able to tell me everything he remembered," she said. "For about three weeks afterwards, he was very emotional, but we had definitely turned the corner."

A predictable place

Matthew Witham, day treatment supervisor at Washburn, said play therapy sessions are a very controlled, predictable environment where children feel safe and nurtured. The toys -- dinosaurs, animals, cars and the like -- are always stored in the same place so the children can access them and use them to help tell their own stories.

"Many of these kids have a fear of the world not being predictable," said Witham. "This is a place where they can freely express what is going on internally."

Although Ezekiel still takes medication for ADHD, his temper tantrums are few and far between, said his mom. The Hassing family also has expanded significantly. The Hassings adopted Willow, now 2 years old, when she was an infant, and are also caring for three foster children, ages 6, 2 and 1. The oldest is receiving therapy at Washburn.

"I consider Washburn my friend. They were so calm and patient with us and told us many times that everything Ezekiel had been through hadn't happened overnight," said Hassing, "As parents, we had to be involved in our child's care and we followed their advice. It's a definite partnership."

Ezekiel, who loves his fifth-grade class at Alice Smith Elementary in Hopkins, relishes his role as a big brother.

"He adores the little ones. He puts them in their high chairs and gets them their meals. If one of them has a tantrum, he tries to divert them," said Teresa. "We could never have imagined this when he was 7 years old. Just thinking about how far that child has come is a miracle."

Ezekiel is one of many children in the household. The Hassings also have a daughter. Lexie, adopted from Peru, who at the time Ezekiel joined the family was a teenager (she had been adopted at 18 months). Brad has several older children from previous marriages.

After the Hassings married, they started to talk about adopting. Teresa's mother was a foster child from the time she was 7 years old, so the couple decided that helping give other children a good life would be a way to honor her. And the idea of having a large family appealed to them.

"I always wanted to grow up as part of 'The Brady Bunch,'" said Teresa. "And my husband has a really, really big heart."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

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  • RESOURCES

    In addition to the day treatment program, Washburn Center for Children offers diagnostic assessments, outpatient individual and family therapy and home- and community-based services. For more information, visit www.washburn.org.

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