The boy was angry. He had witnessed his father commit unimaginable violence against his mother before the two separated. The boy would attack his mother, had fits of anger and suffered night terrors especially after visiting his father.  

But when you’re only 3-years-old, talk therapy isn’t as effective, and coping skills have yet to be learned. 

His mother brought him to the Central Region’s The Butterfly Project where children and families who’ve experienced domestic, family or community violence can receive free counseling services.  

 At one session, when the 3-year-old didn’t get his way, he ran wildly, kicked walls and tried to hit his mother and the therapist.  When he threw a pillow at the therapist, she quickly turned it into a game. He calmed. His rage turned to laughter. When leaving, he told the therapist he loved her. 

 “I just happened to find the right thing – a safe outlet for him to express his feelings,” explained The Butterfly Project therapist Stephanie Johansson, MSW, QMHP. 

“Sometimes, when the moment clicks and they feel seen and understood, it’s magic.” 

 At The Butterfly Project, licensed therapists work with newborns to 18-year-olds and their non-offending parent or guardian. They offer individual and family counseling; use play therapy; and make home visits to name of few of the services. All are designed to help the child build a healthy, secure attachment to the parent so the child can learn to feel safe. The parent is provided with a safe place to learn about the impact of violence on their child, and along with the support of the therapist and the option of peer-to-peer support, they can help their child heal.   

Studies have shown that children who witness domestic violence are at serious risk for long-term physical and mental health problems. They may also be at a great risk of being repeating the cycle of violence in future relationships.  

The program, the only one of its kind in the region, has four therapists who each work with up to 15 children at a time. It’s most successful when the child and parent attend regularly, and families are served for 6 months to 1 year on average, Johansson said. 

“I have some seen some amazing results for families who are at the right time in their life,” she said.  

While typically at capacity, there now are openings at The Butterfly Project. The program relies on teachers, doctors, and community partners to refer appropriate families. 

 Unless violence is still occurring, any family with a child exposed to violence can apply to the free program. Parent involvement also is a critical ingredient. Parent-child attachment promotes healing and parents can model managing and calming big feelings, which can lead to the child feeling safe. 

The mother to the 3-year-old child continued to receive critical services on and off for about a year, and mom joined The Butterfly Project’s Parents Group. Both are making enormous progress, Johansson said.  

“He’s now four and no longer hits mom and can ask for things to make him feel better when he is sad or angry,” Johansson said. “She did so much work at home. He has a nurturing relationship with her, asking for comfort from her. I’m so proud of them.” 

The Butterfly Project is offered in the Central Region – in McLean, Logan, Ford, Livingston, and Woodford counties. For more information, please contact Program Supervisor, Tammy Murrell  

Funding for the Butterfly Project is provided through the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) and the Family Violence Prevention Fund.