PEORIA — Jose and Cortez grew up in a home where verbal and physical abuse toward their mother was commonplace — and the older boy later experienced it himself.

Even after their parents split up, even after their father faced child abuse charges, the emotional scars lingered — one boy becoming aggressive and defiant, the other quiet and withdrawn.

Both of them needed counseling to identify and work through their feelings about a situation they hadn’t caused and couldn’t control.

Both of the boys, whose names have been changed to preserve their privacy, are beneficiaries of counseling programs through the Center for Prevention of Abuse. One such specialized one, Safe from the Start, offers aid to kids aged 5 and younger who have been witnesses to or victims of violence.

It’s a state-funded endeavor that the center recently restarted at the end of the lengthy state budget impasse. When that fight entered its second year, the center had to put the program on hiatus, despite being one of only 10 locations in the state where the specialized service is offered.

Because it didn’t resume until partway into this year, only about 36 children will receive counseling this year, though in a full year the organization can see as many as 60 locally.

“We just really help provide them with the resources they need as those little individuals to know how to cope with what they’ve witnessed and some of the symptoms that come with that,” said center clinical director Heidi VanHeuklon.

Typically that help occurs during 45-minute one-on-one sessions with one of six trained child counselors, says Sara Dillefeld, the center’s director of domestic violence family services.

“In conjunction with the therapeutic services we’re offering to the children, we’re also offering a lot of support to the parent or the caregiver as well,” she said. “ … We’re able to meet with the non-offending caregivers to make sure they understand what services will look like. And many of our clients have other needs in addition to their children.”

The state has also agreed to pay the center back some $120,000 for keeping the program up and running during the first year of the two-year stalemate.

Another little-known element of the program is its focus on other, non-domestic violence in the area.

“One of the beauties of the Safe from the Start program is we can help kids who have been subjected to community violence, which is not something that’s necessarily covered under other grant programs,” center executive director Carol Merna said. “That could mean a shooting in the neighborhood, a fight in the neighborhood and how that’s affected the child.”

Center officials are also bullish about their ability to reach more kids in older age groups who might not be eligible for Safe from the Start because of a $15,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Central Illinois that supplements funding for therapists to ensure waiting lists are shorter.

“As you can imagine with crisis services, it’s difficult to put somebody on a waiting list and two months later try to re-establish a connection,” VanHeuklon said. “Research will definitely show when it comes to trauma and kids — period — the sooner the intervention can be provided, then the longer-term the success down the road into adulthood.”

Some 75 additional kids are expected to receive services through that grant in the coming year.

Chris Kaergard can be reached at or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.