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Many California families do not have access to mental health care for children. This East Palo Alto mom found a way | KQED

Medi-Cal, the state-funded insurance program for low-income people, covers mental health care services, including therapy, but of the 5.3 million children and youth enrolled in the program, only 5% received a mental health care service, according to the California Children’s Trust.

The Cuevas family is part of this small fraction that has benefited from it. And unlike some parents who are afraid or wary of asking for help, she was looking forward to her children getting therapy. It was because she knew how much it helped her.

Cuevas, 29, said she was raised in a home she considered emotionally and physically abusive. She remembers briefly seeing a therapist when she was 8 or 9 years old.

“I loved, loved, loved. (The therapist) was so nice. She was so understanding,” Cuevas said. “I never expressed myself at all. Nobody ever listened to me. And when they listened to me, they said, “Oh, you’re lying.”

After a few sessions, her mother abruptly stopped taking her on dates, Cuevas said. She never knew why.

“It was really hard,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Great, I’m back in my little bubble in my corner of darkness and I don’t know what to do.'”

Cuevas became a mother at 20. She was in a marriage she described as emotionally abusive. It ended shortly after the birth of her first child. Cuevas remarried and had three more children. Her second husband was also abusive, she said. She briefly lived in his car after the relationship broke up.

She met Gabriela Buendia, a therapist who worked at her children’s preschool as a mental health consultant. Cuevas met with Buendia almost weekly to talk about her children’s behaviors. She said she learned to try to understand why her children acted out instead of just correcting them or reacting.

Preschoolers show their emotions through their behaviors, according to Buendia.

“A lot of kids struggle with chronic stress, chronic trauma, significant challenges at home,” said Buendia, who offered assessments to Cuevas but did not treat her children. “A lot of them don’t have the language to express how they feel, so they will show it to us through their behaviors.”

Executive Director Eric Valladares at the Family Connections playground in Redwood City on September 6, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After a few years of being trusted, Cuevas started going to Buendia for therapy for herself. She never forgot the feeling of having someone in her life who she could trust and listen to her.

“I’m more open-minded,” she said. “I was able to express my feelings more.”

Finding help for her two oldest children was relatively simple, Cuevas said. She went to a San Mateo County health office to request appointments.

“I went through four therapists before I found the right partner,” she said. “I didn’t give up.”

As of 2019, her two oldest children saw a therapist once a week on Zoom. Their sessions often involved games and activities.

Buendia said a few factors made a difference for Cuevas’ family. The first is that her children’s preschool looked for signs of mental health issues and had a consultant on staff.

Another is that Cuevas learned to advocate for his children and had access to insurance covering therapy. Many parents, Buendia said, don’t have access to the system or don’t know how to navigate it.

“I admire this mom so much. She is like the epitome of someone who has struggled so much, overcome so much,” Buendia said. “She has overcome so many obstacles and trauma and yet she is still so connected to her feelings and is vulnerable and so connected to her children. She’s amazing.

In February, Cuevas moved his family to a townhouse in East Palo Alto, providing a more stable situation. She had to stop working at the start of the pandemic to care for her children, but is back to full-time work in catering at Stanford University. In August, she remarried.

“I’m finally in this great relationship with someone who loves my kids, who loves me and treats me the way I need to be treated. My kids are happier than ever,” Cuevas said. no lie, I have a lot of anxiety. I have lots of panic attacks. So I’m working on it. »

Cuevas said the therapy has improved the way she communicates with her children. In the past, she’s said she’s worried more about cleaning her house than making time to connect with her kids. Now she makes sure they eat together and talk to each other before bed. She wants her children to have a different experience than she had growing up.

She wants them to feel free to express their needs and emotions.

“I know that after finding the therapist for them and finding one myself, I noticed a shift where they could confide in me and tell me what was going on and express themselves,” Cuevas said. . “It’s amazing how much trauma and how many wounds we have in our family. But there is hope.

“With therapy, you have that hope.”

Blanca Torres reported this story while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism California Fellowship 2022.

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