Internship allows RHS student to work with victims of torture

Jessica Buterbaugh
October 15, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A desire to work with individuals impacted by disabilities is the primary reason students enroll in Penn State’s rehabilitation and human services (RHS) program. Ranked as a top-10 program in the United States, the RHS major trains students to work with individuals in need of rehabilitation and provide services to aid in that process.

Many students enter the RHS program thinking they will work only with individuals with intellectual, physical or emotional disabilities. However, persons in need of rehabilitation exist within various populations around the globe, something Lucia Canton learned first-hand this summer.

“Working with torture victims, it’s when I knew what I wanted to do with my future,” Canton said.

“I really learned a lot about what a widespread, systematic practice torture is worldwide and how prevalent it is, even in the United States.”

— Lucia Canton, RHS student

This past summer, Canton, a 2015 graduate of the RHS program, completed an internship with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), a nonprofit that supports the rehabilitation of torture victims and the prevention of torture worldwide. Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, IRCT serves as an umbrella organization to 144 member organizations in more than 70 countries that share its mission. Canton spent two months of her internship at a member organization in Mexico City before heading to Copenhagen to finish out her duties at the IRCT headquarters.

“I really learned a lot about what a widespread, systematic practice torture is worldwide and how prevalent it is, even in the United States” Canton said. “I got to listen to a lot of victims of torture speak about what had happened to them, which were all extremely terrible things.”

While working at Colectivo Contra la Tortura y la Impunidad (CCTI), a torture rehabilitation center in Mexico she listened to the stories of many survivors, all of which provoked an emotional response from Canton.

One survivor spoke of the torture she and her friends endured at the hands of the Mexican police, Canton said.

“The police came and took these women [from their home] without any cause or warning,” she said. "The police took the women to another location and instructed them to remove their sweaters and tie them around their eyes like a blindfold."

“Then the police started beating them and torturing them in every way imaginable. They were physically tortured, emotionally tortured, sexually tortured. Everything. She and her friends could hear everything going on around them and everything that was happening, but couldn’t see,” Canton said. “She said the hardest part was at the end when the police officers told them to stand up and take of their blindfolds, seeing her friends and all the damage that had been done.”

In addition to interacting with survivors of torture, Canton also observed the different practices and approaches the staff implemented, and contributed to a project to gather information about the rehabilitation approaches taken by IRCT’s  member organizations in the region.

“With so many different field offices, it’s difficult for everybody to stay updated on what the different offices are doing in terms of rehabilitation approaches,” Canton said.

To help minimize that gap, Canton read literature from Latin America, and translated the information into a literature review so that service providers at other locations will be able to see rehabilitation approaches taken in other contexts. 

“Torture completely destroys a person and their rehabilitation path is complex and they have many needs. We look for interns who recognize that and can bring a professional skill set to understand that not just one strategy works."

— Leanne MacMillan,
director of research development, IRCT

“I learned a lot about the different environmental conflicts the field offices face that can affect rehabilitation,” Canton said. “Some counselors have to work with clients who are imprisoned and have to deal with time constraints and guards who might not let them enter the grounds. And they have to figure out how to get around that. Others might have clients who are displaced and counselors have to determine how to get to them.” It’s not as simple as going into somebody’s office to talk for an hour, she said.

Leanne MacMillan, director of research development, believes the multidisciplinary curriculum that Canton received as an RHS student contributed to her success as an intern.

“The ability to work between professional disciplines and to listen to other perspectives — the medical, legal or therapeutic professions — and how they think about survivors’ rehabilitation, that’s what we look for,” MacMillan said. “And that’s where the strength of Penn State’s RHS program comes into play. The program actually trains students how to negotiate in that landscape and to be more minded about the perspective of the survivor and think about all of the different rehabilitation strategies that are necessary.”

Because victims of torture are each affected in different ways, it is important for a counselor to understand the different aspects that can affect the process of rehabilitating. Counselors must have an open mind and empathize with clients’ experiences, MacMillan said.

“Torture completely destroys a person and their rehabilitation path is complex and they have many needs,” she said. “We look for interns who recognize that and can bring a professional skill set to understand that not just one strategy works. Lucia demonstrated that remarkably.”

Victims of torture are not a population in which many would think of when exploring careers in rehabilitation. In some societies, the use of torture is deeply rooted and  its victims are not seen or may be afraid or ashamed to talk about what they have survived, MacMillan said.

“As a torture rehabilitation movement, we are trying to get people to understand that individuals who have been tortured have a right to rehabilitation,” she said. 

Individuals who have suffered torture experience a seemingly endless range of struggles, including discrimination, mental health issues, PTSD and trauma, family issues and employment issues, MacMillan said. And, it can be challenging.

But it is a challenge Canton embraces. After earning her bachelor’s degree in August, she is now looking into graduate programs that focus on human rights and victimology. Whatever her future holds, she knows one thing — she will continue to advocate for victims of torture.

“Working at IRCT and listening to people speak about their experiences and reading about it, it really sinks in and makes you more motivated to continue doing what you’re doing to help these people,” Canton said. “And I was continually reminded about that throughout my internship.”

  • Lucia Canton

    RHS student Lucia Canton takes a break from her internship with the International Rehabilitation for Torture Victims in Copenhagen, Denmark to visit the city.

    IMAGE: Photo courtesy of Lucia Canton
Last Updated November 12, 2015