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Social Workers: Art Helps Victims Express ‘Unspeakable Things’


The healing power of the creative arts in social work is proving so viable that it is time for a concerted effort to research and fund that area, a panel of social workers said on March 23 at Fordham University.

Nathaly Rubio-Torio, LMSW, holds up a fan made by Latinas with HIV at the Bronx-based Voces Latinas.
Photos by Janet Sassi

Speaking at the Graduate School for Social Services’ (GSS) Seventh Annual Women’s Symposium, panelists shared a series of remarkable success stories integrating art into social work practices for female victims of trauma and other abuses.

“A lot of the art our clients will make is not pretty, but it is powerful and expressive,” said Drena Fagen, LMSW, LCAT, co-founder of the New York Creative Arts Therapists, a Brooklyn-based art therapy practice. “It can connect with the hurt of childhood and help us gain an understanding of emotional, behavioral and cognitive patterns.”

Fagen shared slides of work produced by adolescent victims of domestic and sexual abuse; in one painting, a 12-year-old foster child unconsciously wrote “bad mom” as musical notes in the background; another, painted by a nine-year-old girl, showed little birds falling out of a nest while the mother bird flew overhead, unaware.

A third slide, done by an adolescent who was sexually abused, showed a butterfly, grounded yet trying to fly.

“Art therapy can . . . communicate unspeakable things,” Fagen said.

Sandra Bennett-Pagan, LCSW, regional women’s health consultant in the Office for Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that female trauma is not a social work issue alone; it is also an issue of public health and of women’s health. By using arts therapy in trauma-informed care, a client with a lived experience can be treated as a “whole person.”

Artist Rosario D’Rivera displayed her work at the GSS event. She said she found solace in art as a young Cuban immigrant.

“Whether it is visual arts, writing therapy, poetry, drama therapy or movement, there is less reliance on verbal language,” Bennett-Pagan said. “If you are really traumatized, language is not how you express yourself very well anyway—you are in shock.

“So [arts therapy]is a strength-based model,” she said. “The focus is on resiliency versus pathology.”

One novel arts-based approach to social work, said Bennett-Pagan, is the Glass Book Project, a national initiative that brings social work students and victims of trauma together with the objective of creating a book of glass borne from a specific trauma, such as an eating disorder or self-injury. One book, Can You Help Me Put My Life Back Together, features broken glass stitched together with wire.

Not only has the Glass Book Project helped clients move away from thinking, “What is wrong with me?” to “What has happened to me?” but it has transformed the social work students into strong advocates for arts-based therapy, she said.

Both Bennett-Pagan and Nathaly Rubio-Torio, LMSW, founder of Voces Latinas Corp., stressed the importance of creating an environment where clients feel safe to move toward healing, recovery and resiliency.

Painting by 12-year-old girl in foster care.

To achieve that, Rubio-Torio’s Bronx-based organization enlists cultural arts and crafts to help reduce HIV transmission in the Latina community.

“You can’t put “HIV/AIDS Services” on your door and expect people come in,” Rubio-Torio said. “But cultural arts is something everybody shares. We love sitting around doing crafts, so that is one of the best ways to bring women together.”

Once the clients have found a safe environment and free expression in doing art, Rubio-Torio and her staff take the opportunity to educate them on the high-risk issues, HIV prevention and the use of condoms.

“We get the message out,” she said.

The artwork created by clients at Voces Latinas is so beautiful, said Rubio-Torio, that she wants to create a micro-business to empower the women while helping support the non-profit agency’s services.

“These women have so much talent,” she said. “We recognize their work; a lot of times nobody is recognizing it in their homes.”

It is time, said Bennett-Pagan, to educate the funding community about the value of creative arts social work therapy.

“We need more applied clinical research to be able to show this really works,” she said, “because we allknow it works.”

The event, “Social Work and the Arts For Women and Girls: Innovation in the Field,” was sponsored by the GSS’ Institute for Women and Girls, which works to promote the well-being of women and girls who experience poverty, violence, health problems and discrimination.


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