Witnessing the Power of Art At Free Arts for Abused Children

Sunlight is pouring through the window that surrounds the waiting hall. It is solemn, even forbidding in here, Edmund Edelman Children’s Court. The only sound that echoes in the hall—beep-beep-beep. What could I have possibly brought here to annoy the security machine?

“Ma’am, that camera’s not allowed in here”
“It’s for the interview with Free Arts for Abused Children center”
“Okay, but you can’t take any pictures without consent. Go up to 5th floor.”

Walking toward the elevator, an overpowering painting covering the entire wall before the elevator greets me. Is it a mural? No, it’s a collection of about thirty-five drawings of diff erent faces in clumsy strokes. One of them shows a lady with some very tough mustache and another one looks like a lump of black butterflies trapped in a web.

Who drew all these? I push the button for the 5th floor to get an answer to my question.

The 5th floor is quiet and empty. Except for a few people sitting on scuffed benches, nothing really grabs my attention. But watching them busily rubbing their fingers and shaking their legs, I feel the tension in the hall. These people are waiting for the trial, the decision that can change the paths of every family members. One child who is sitting next to his father is sucking his tiny thumb in a very stiff manner. Looking around, I can’t find any of theses kids running or jumping around making loud noises. It is such an unfamiliar scene to witness, almost uncomfortable.

Taking a deep breath, I walk into the administration office. It takes me a while to recognize that the office looks exactly like a courtroom, almost. In the middle of the room stands a judge’s bench covered in colorful tapes, ribbons and a stack of project posters. Adjacent to the bench is a long desk, which is usually served for witness to stand and reporters to sit, decorated with red pompoms. One by one, I observe the posters and paintings displayed on the wall. This office is a little gallery! While I am almost done counting the in vibrant animals in the zoo in one poster, a lady with a cheerful smile offers her hand,

“Hi, I’m Audrey, I will be giving you a tour today” Audrey is the development director of the center that I contacted for the interview. After sharing a polite and brief introduction with Audrey, we take an elevator down to the 4th floor to meet volunteers and I start pouring the questions about the center.

According to 2012 Children’s advocacy center statistics, there were 145,000 children investigated for child abuse from January from June 2012. The impact of child abuse is far greater than its immediate, visible effects. Abuse and neglect can scar a person for life, causing development delays, aggressive behaviors and depression. Free Arts for Abused Children in LosAngeles County has been providing several different programs to help these children escape the anxiety through arts and crafts projects. Out of four programs that they have, this courthouse program is specifically designed to loosen the tension for children waiting for their dependency hearing at the court.

“It’s amazing how effective art is at opening these children’s mind,” explains Audrey. “Kids would walk in to the courtroom waving a paper with a mickey mouse that they drew or hugging a doll they just made. It’s a conversation starter for the judge, asking the doll’s name and commending them for great work. The kids feel strong and confident holding their creation. It’s their talisman.”

The fourth floor looks exactly same as the fifth one, except this floor is a little more crowded. A bit more kids bustling around and a bit more conversation happening between the adults. And in the center of the hall is a big round table that, completely surrounded by kids. On the table are coloring papers with Disney characters, numerous crayons, tiny scissors and other decorations lined up in a very organized manner. Three volunteers are handing out materials to children. Every single one of them is completely occupied with coloring the princess and the cars, I did not dare disturb. Here, I can’t find any hints of abuse. Is this the power of art therapy?

“Tell me some stories about the miraculous in children that you have witnessed while working here”

“There are so many stories to tell…in fact, I see it everyday,” Audrey starts to list her memorable moments without even a second of pondering.

“It was pretty festive that first day at this center, there were many children running around the tables that we prepared with art materials for all kinds of projects. I was paying attention to this one kid who wouldn’t interact with other, just sitting in the corner. When I was about to approach to him, a volunteer took his hand and led him to the origami table. Sitting apart from each other, they focused on making their own frogs out of a piece of paper. No words, just busily folding and cutting the papers. After finishing the work the kid approached to the volunteer who quietly waited for him to do so. The boy liked volunteer’s compliment on his frog and started showing it to everyone in the room. Oh and there’s another story about a girl who would not open up to anyone even after several counseling but started talking about her story after our yoga session…”

As I write down the stories about changes in abused children that this center has brought, I look around. I realize, all these stories are important. But not as important as what I am seeing with my own eyes right now. The little girl who is making an important decision of which pink crayon to use for the Rapunzel’s dress, the mom who is watching her with tired but relieved smile and the volunteer who is helping a boy use a scissor. Art is the cure for these children.

Picasso once said, “Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” After visiting the Free Arts for Abused Children center, I am a big proponent of utilizing the power of art and creativity for improving emotional and mental health of abused children. It’s not just the best way of cure these children, it might be the only way.

– Courthouse program director, Judith (left) and Development Director, Audrey (right) –

If you want to know more about Free Arts for Abused Children center, go to http://www.freearts.org/

If you want to learn more about the volunteer experience at the center, see the reviews here


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