Forget me not farm: a healing place.
Subject: Juvenile offenders (Psychological aspects)
Child psychotherapy (Usage)
Abused children (Psychological aspects)
Behavior therapy (Usage)
Author: Rossiter, Sherry
Pub Date: 03/22/2006
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Spring, 2006 Source Volume: 9 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Canadian Subject Form: Behaviour therapy
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 152760487
Full Text: Located on the spacious grounds of the Humane Society of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, California, is a very special program where abused and neglected children and at-risk youth are taught gentleness and empathy through carefully planned interactions with plants and animals.

Forget Me Not Farm, a nationally acclaimed and award winning animal assisted and horticultural therapy program that works collaboratively with other community resources, has been in operation since 1992. To date, more than 3,500 children have participated in this extraordinary year-round program.

Weekly sessions are filled with lessons about nurturing, gentleness, kindness, and compassion. Children learn about animal care by bathing, grooming, and feeding the resident farm animals, and they learn about the life cycle by planting seeds and tending plants in the organic garden. Learning to care for plants and animals provides an emotionally healing experience for the participant through restorative touch, healthy attachment, and mutually nurturing relationships.

Reliable and mature volunteers are critical to the program's success, and each volunteer is given 40 hours of training prior to working with the children. Many of the child participants in this program have never had an opportunity to carry on a conversation with or be mentored by a non-abusive adult. For this reason, all volunteers are meticulously screened, interviewed, fingerprinted, and educated about the special needs of child victims of abuse, neglect, and domestic violence.

Whereas program volunteers are never given information about a child's background or mental health diagnosis, volunteers may be briefed on specific behaviors that could put the child or a farm animal's safety at risk. Children with particularly troublesome behaviors are always accompanied by their therapist or a participating agency staff member when visiting the farm. Whenever possible, an American Sign Language interpreter is provided when hearing impaired groups visit the Farm.

Program founder and director Carol Rathmann, MA, RVT, says, "The unique design of the Forget Me Not Farm program is intentional. The program's carefully structured activities provide children from violent homes with the opportunity to become part of a nurturing series of relationships in which seeds grow into vegetables and flowers, animals grow into companions to be cared for and played with, and adults grow into trusted and protective guides and mentors."

The program's structure centers on the belief that trauma recovery treatment for maltreated children should be reparative and corrective. The Forget Me Not Farm program provides traumatized children with an opportunity to experience safe and appropriate interactions with all living things, thereby creating and expanding a sense of trust and wellbeing.

Basic values emphasized by the Forget Me Not Farm program include compassion, empathy, reverence for all living organisms, accountability for one's actions, gentleness, and respect for self and others. Special attention is given to four specific areas of program design: restorative touch using both plants and animals; attachment formation; the cycle of life; and the healing power of nature.

Understandably, children who have been abused or have witnessed abuse are often frightened and confused by touch. If the only touch a child has ever known was violent, then it is hard to imagine being touched in a gentle, caring manner. On the other hand, if a child is shown how to lovingly hold a small animal or how to properly interact with a larger animal, the child will quickly learn to be gentle and caring with animals and other living things.

Because instability is the hallmark of the lives of these children, every effort is made to provide stability. The same volunteers are there each week, as well as the same farm animals and/or pet-assisted therapy participants. The children are encouraged to form attachments to specific animals with the goal of making the children feel successful in initiating and cultivating relationships. In forming attachments with animals and volunteers the children learn about setting appropriate physical and emotional boundaries.

Animals currently used in the Farm program include Pepper, a male La Mancha goat; Sonny and Cher, male and female St. Croix haired sheep; Carmen, a miniature donkey; Einswine, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig; and numerous chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, and smaller critters. When the resident llama, who was an excellent role model for boundary setting, died of natural causes, that event became another opportunity to talk with the children about grief, loss, and the life cycle.

Each session at the Farm begins with an opening circle, which provides an opportunity for the children to be welcomed and paired with their volunteer staff member, parent, teacher, and/or therapist, and to "check in" emotionally. The opening circle also gives the program facilitator an opportunity to gauge the energy level and general mood of the children, to reiterate ground rules, and to explain the lesson (or activity) objective for that day.

Each planned activity has a purpose and teaches or models one or more of the core values outlined in the Forget Me Not Farm mission statement. While it usually works best to have some formal structure to the planned activities, much of the therapeutic value of the Farm experience happens spontaneously as the participants interact with the animals, plants, and staff.

The closing circle provides an opportunity for the children to share their thoughts and feelings or to tell what they liked best about the day's activities. It also provides an opportunity for the facilitator to reinforce the lesson objective for that day, provide a preview of what they will do the next week, and watch for children who may need some special follow-up attention due to strong emotional reactions to being at the Farm that day.

While the Forget Me Not Farm program is clearly designed to foster empathy, nurturing, and compassion for all living things, the program also increases the participant's self-esteem and self-confidence. Each lesson or activity in the Farm program teaches that all living organisms--even pigs, goats, snakes, and weeds--have inherent value, and that we humans can learn many valuable lessons from our interactions with them. Teaching a child the proper way to hold a puppy, lead a donkey, or feed a pig helps that child gain both skills mastery and self-confidence.

Moreover, the Farm program serves as a model program for community collaboration in teaching gentleness, empathy, and non-violence to at-risk children and families through gardening and animal care in a safe, non-threatening environment. The therapeutic value of the Farm program continues to be recognized by special education teachers, social workers, counseling professionals, residential care providers, doctoral students, and even parents who are trying to win back custody of their children.

One of more than a dozen agencies that have participated in and benefited from the Farm program is A Special Place, a therapeutic preschool for children ages 3-5 operated by the YWCA of Sonoma County. Weekly visits to the Farm have been incorporated into the preschool curriculum resulting in observable positive changes in the behavior of these child victims and witnesses of domestic violence.

John * (* not the child's real name) came to the Farm for the first time at age 3-1/2. His preschool teacher told the program director that John could not tolerate the feel of different textures on his skin. The first thing he did after arriving at the Farm was to remove his name tag, which was hanging around his neck from a piece of soft yarn. Not surprisingly, John refused to touch any of the animals on this first visit. However, as the weeks went by, John slowly became more involved until he was finally willing and able to pet all of the resident animals. John's biggest accomplishment was to put his arms around the miniature donkey, who has coarse, wirey hair. The day John spontaneously gave the donkey a big hug and rested his face against her cheek is a day that his therapist and the program volunteers will never forget.

Steve * was about 12 years old when he first visited the Farm. On his weekly visits, Steve grew very fond of Daisy, a very gentle 1,800-pound cow that he enjoyed leading around the Farm on a rope. Ironically, while Steve showed no fear whatsoever of Daisy, he displayed great fear of a mature Golden Retriever that belonged to one of the program volunteers who came each week to help with Steve's group. The dog loved to fetch a tennis ball, and Steve was willing to throw the ball for the dog. However, Steve was terrified when the dog returned to give him the ball. Program staff worked for weeks with Steve to get him to relax with the dog. Finally, one day the program director reminded Steve that he had willingly and successfully led an 1,800-pound cow on a rope, and that since he was brave enough to handle Daisy, his fear of a 50-pound dog was puzzling. Steve reflected on this for a few minutes, and then he slowly approached the dog and began petting him. By the end of that visit, he was actually lying next to the dog on the grass, petting him and talking to him. After that day, Steve was relaxed around the Golden Retriever.

Sara * has been coming to Forget Me Not Farm off and on since she was 6 years old and first entered the foster care system. Sara has a long history of depression, poor boundaries, and sexualized and self-injurious behaviors. She has participated in many hours of individual and group psychotherapy over the years, but continues to exhibit a pattern of poor judgment and aggressive and sexualized behavior. There is a strong possibility Sara was exposed to illicit drugs in utero.

Recently, Sara turned 18 and can no longer participate in the Farm program, but during this last year she was part of a new mentorship program started at the Farm. The mentorship program allowed Sara to learn about the inner workings of an animal shelter, receive some useful skills training, help out with the care of Forget Me Not Farm animals, improve her social skills, and increase her self-confidence. Sara has always enjoyed writing, but during her mentorship she expressed strong interest in animal welfare. The program director paired Sara with a volunteer who had a strong interest in photography, and together they produced a useful manual explaining how to foster a kitten.

While anecdotal stories like those of John, Steve, and Sara abound, it has been difficult to obtain empirical data to substantiate the effectiveness of the Forget Me Not Farm program. One reason it is difficult to obtain reliable data has to do with the population served. The participants in this program come from environments where stability and normalcy are sorely lacking. In other words, a child may come to the Farm for 4 weeks in a row with one agency, but then he is moved into a new foster home not connected to the agency that started him in the Farm program. Therefore, identifying a group of children who can consistently participate in a 6- or 9-week program for research purposes has been a challenge. Another issue has been finding an assessment instrument that will measure the behaviors, character traits, and/or skills that are meaningful therapeutic outcomes of participation in the Farm program. While the Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach & Rescoria, 2000) has been used many times with various groups of children participating in the Forget Me Not Farm program, it doesn't have the necessary scales to quantify all of the positive behaviors observed in these children. Considering the long history of abuse, neglect, and/or maltreatment that most of the participants in the Forget Me Not Farm program share, even small improvements in behavior or attitude are significant in this population's trauma recovery process.

Until recently, all funding for the Farm program, which is offered at no charge to the participants, came exclusively from private donors. In the last few years, the program has been able to secure grants from the California Office of Criminal Justice and private or community foundations. These monies have allowed the program to expand the number of children served annually.

What is especially exciting about this program is that it can be duplicated in any community with the desire to offer such a program. Whether we as helping professionals can ever truly measure or quantify the therapeutic value of this plant and animal assisted program, the positive testimony of counselors, social workers, teachers, and others about the therapeutic value of this program cannot be ignored.

To obtain additional information about Forget Me Not Farm, please send an email request stating your name, licensure, mailing address, and organizational affiliation to

By Sherry Rossiter, PhD, Diplomate of the American Psychotherapy Association

Sherry Rossiter has served as a program consultant to Forget Me Not Farm for more than a decade. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor specializing in PTSD and a Diplomate of the American Psychotherapy Association.
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.