Every week, Family Preservation worker Gemima Joyce drives north to see a family-of-four with a monster named Morton perched on her passenger seat.
The corduroy critter is one of four tactile characters enlisted by Centacare to help children unlock their experience of trauma through sensory exploration.
Susan kitten, Ellen the caterpillar, and Ollie monkey round out the crew, but it’s Morton who the children can’t wait to see when Gemima visits.
For them, the monster is a novelty, but `Morty’ is quietly serving a much bigger purpose by helping the family’s youngest boy to explore his feelings, identity, and the experiences that have shaped his short life.
These same experiences lie beneath many of the boy’s challenging behaviours which Family Preservation is helping the household to manage, through a deeper understanding of what his actions represent.
“Initially, there was a lot of fear attached to his behaviours,’’ Gemima says. “They didn’t think he knew about his emotions and feelings because he would just explode, seemingly for no reason.
“I really wanted to help them understand his world a bit more, by seeing what he does with Morty. Play is everything for kids. Having the opportunity to tell a story through that can be really powerful.’’
Developed by the Australian Childhood Foundation, Morton and his crew live within a creative narrative landscape defined by a big tree.
Each doll has specific themes of experience and healing integrated into their design. These provide therapeutic support to address child protection concerns such as abuse, neglect and domestic violence.
In Morton’s case, a pocket on his back is filled with various Velcro facial expressions. With Gemima’s help, the boy uses these to explore his own emotions and the sensory responses each feeling evokes such as smell, taste and touch.
“We found that his feelings around what he felt and smelled for angry and sad were the same,’’ Gemima says.
“Faces, eye contact and body language can be quite foreign and scary to children
“Often, families will think children are not engaging when, actually, they are in a perpetual state of freeze or fear.’’
While traditional soft toys provide comfort and support children on the path to independence, Morton is helping the boy to process and, unknowingly, make sense of his experiences, Gemima says.
By engaging in stories with each character, he metaphorically represents the themes that are present in his own little life so that Gemima can work to address them alongside the family.
Gemima highlights the gradual introduction of Morton’s friends including Susan kitten, who is designed for children to hold and feel grounded and safe. A textured storybook constantina in the back of Susan’s head represents a set of dreams or imaginings.
“That has opened up conversations with him around what Susan kitty would dream of at night,’’ she says.
Ollie monkey has helped to identify the boy’s emotional connection to food which can sometimes lead him to over eat and steal his siblings’ meals. Made from soft velvet, Ollie has a big mouth full of textured snacks.
Shortly, Gemima will bring Ellen on her visits too, as a way of celebrating the boy’s resilience and hope for the future. Decorated wings fold out from the caterpillar’s back to represent transformation and change.
“It’s important to acknowledge with them how far they’ve come as a family, and the boy’s own journey of healing,’’ Gemima says.
* Family Preservation is a voluntary program and works in partnership with the Department for Child Protection to provide families with children from birth to 18 years with intensive one-year case management. Practical and therapeutic home-based services are provided, in addition to health assessements by a clinical nurse.