Harmony Family Center’s Paws for Kids and Equine Therapy Programs Promote Healing and Restoration for Those Who’ve Experienced Trauma

Harmony Family Center has provided more than 85,000 children and families in Tennessee with innovative therapeutic care and educational services. Started by Pam Wolf, licensed clinical social worker and adoptive mom, Harmony is a touchstone for foster and adoptive families, particularly those who’ve been affected by trauma. The end goal is to bolster healthy, long-lasting attachments in families, individually and as a unit, where hope grows and thrives.

Why did you start Harmony Family Center?
I saw the need for services that considered the attachment and trauma needs of the child. I found that many pre-adopt, post-adopt and foster care support services did not adequately take into account the effect that trauma has on children’s brains and their overall behavior, so I wanted to change that. 

What lessons have you learned along this journey?
Be brave. Sometimes we don’t take the road less traveled because we are afraid to fail. I learned long ago that we can either learn from our mistakes, or we can allow mistakes to lead us down the road to failure. Failure is normal, and sometimes the best way to continue our journey is to fail our way to success.

Furthermore, my job as the CEO is to lead, and a lot of what it means to lead is to take care of the folks who do the hard work. This means including clear expectations for each team member, effective tools and education, and leading from behind. Simon Sinek is one of my heroes when it comes to ideas and thoughts about leadership, and his book titled “Leaders Eat Last” and TED Talk called “Start with Why” are worth taking the time to read and watch.

What advice do you have for those looking to support children who have experienced trauma?
Parents need to be prepared. Read about parenting, understand trauma and treatment, and learn what you can do to help the child grow. It’s especially important to understand what’s to be expected when parenting a child with a trauma history, drug exposure, time spent in the foster care system or any other number of challenges. Equally important is to know yourself and understand how your own history plays into your parenting. Finally, building your support team and respite care is crucial.

Marianne Wright, animal-assisted therapy program manager

What’s your history with Harmony?
I have worked exclusively in the field of childhood trauma since I received my degree in marriage and family therapy. Initially working in community mental health, I then proceeded to create and implement a trauma-focused, school-based mental health program. After researching leading childhood trauma treatment programs, I moved from Georgia to Tennessee in 2017 to join Harmony Family Center.

Why is equine therapy so successful?
Equine-assisted therapy first and foremost provides a safe means of attachment for kids and adults who have experienced unhealthy or harmful relationships with other people. Horses are non-judgemental and amazingly sensitive to the feelings of those around them, providing a wonderful template to recreate primary relationships and attachment.

Our program is based on the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics developed by neurobiologist and child psychiatrist Dr. Bruce D. Perry of the Child Trauma Academy. We focus on how the involvement of the horse can aid in the organization and healing of a child’s brain in a developmentally sensitive fashion. The movement the horse creates in a child’s body regulates the lower parts of the brain and facilitates processing of traumatic events previously stored in maladaptive ways using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Time spent with our horses creates and strengthens the ability of a child to form and maintain age-appropriate relationships and assists a child’s development of self-regulation.

Interactions with a therapist also become less intrusive when done in a parallel fashion with the child. Many traumatized children find sitting across from a therapist in a face-to-face manner to be too intimate or threatening, but parallel engagement with the horse creates a shared experience that feels safe and non-threatening.

Who would benefit from equine therapy?
Our program is specifically designed for children that have experienced complex developmental trauma, but equine-assisted therapy can be beneficial for almost any challenge an individual may experience.

What is the Paws for Kids program and its goals?
Paws for Kids is a multifaceted program utilizing the healing power of animals with kids and families throughout our service area. We place emotional support dogs and service dogs with children who would benefit from the aid and encouragement a properly trained canine can offer. Our dogs are capable of providing so much assistance to our kids: medication retrieval; deep pressure therapy; disruption of maladaptive behaviors; comfort when emotionally triggered; and constant, nonjudgemental companionship.  

Harmony also has a team of therapy dogs and ambassador dogs trained to work with kids and families during sessions. These dogs belong to Harmony Family Center or to individual staff members and are trained to partner with our staff to augment ongoing therapy practices. Much like in equine-assisted therapy, children who are resistant to engage with a person will easily interact with a dog, providing a gateway into an effective and trusting therapeutic alliance.

Where do the dogs come from, and how are they trained?
Our dogs are hand-selected by Off Leash K9 Training and Harmony from local shelters and rescue centers. The team completes rigorous evaluations on potential dogs to ensure they have the physical, mental and emotional ability to perform the tasks that will await them in their future environment as an emotional support animal or a service dog. When our dogs are placed with a child and their family, we hold an adoption ceremony similar to what the child may have personally experienced with their family. This shared experience has proven to be exceptionally meaningful when the child is able to provide a forever family to a dog that was previously alone.

Share a success story or meaningful experience you’ve witnessed through the program.
It’s hard to pick just one! One of our dogs has been placed for about one year, and it has been amazing to watch the child’s transformation over that period. He takes his dog with him as many places as possible for three main reasons: 1. She provides soothing behaviors such as coming close to him and licking him when he is overwhelmed. 2. She helps him in his various therapies, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc. 3. She provides a connection to peers that he has struggled to develop prior to her placement. Watching the journey of this boy and his dog over the past year has personally solidified the value of Paws for Kids.