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Leaving behind the formal, sterile atmosphere of office clinics, therapists and patients relax together at a ranch to discover how . . . : Nature Heals Minds


Debbie Schwartz was raped as a child and haunted as an adult.

"Every time my husband touched me, I jumped," said Schwartz, 26, formerly of Palmdale. "I couldn't trust him."

Years of counseling didn't help. The cramped, almost claustrophobic atmosphere of a therapist's office only rekindled her anxieties.

"I felt trapped in their offices," she said. "When a door closes behind me, I feel I can't get out."

Finally, in late 1990, Schwartz sought therapy at a ranch in Agua Dulce, about 35 miles northeast of Los Angeles, among the trees, horses and frontier. She developed a close bond with a horse named Sis. She brushed her, petted her and talked to her. But she was afraid to ride her. Finally, after weeks of therapy, she took a chance.

"The turning point for Debbie was when she took that ride," said Diane Davies-Tong, her therapist. "Once she did it, other things paled in comparison. Other things didn't seem as overwhelming. She gained control of her life by gaining control of her inner self."

Schwartz received treatment at the California Center for Family Wellness, a 90-acre ranch where psychological counselors combine traditional family therapy with a recipe of tender outdoor nurturing. Therapists use the environment to relax their patients and show them that, with appropriate care, they, like nature, can heal themselves and get on with their lives.

The center was established in 1987 by Davies-Tong, a former Las Vegas nightclub singer who used to show horses competitively. After flirting with a journalism career in the 1970s, Davies-Tong took a psychology class at Long Beach City College and was hooked.

Today, Davies-Tong, 52, and her assistant, Dana Schutz, 27, treat about 60 patients a week who are victims of abuse or neglect. Davies-Tong is a licensed marriage, family and child specialist who earned a master's degree in psychology at Pepperdine University. Schutz, who has a master's degree in marriage, family and child therapy from the California Family Study Center in North Hollywood, recently become licensed in her field. An intern also occasionally helps out, and a clinical psychologist, nurse and occupational therapist are available on call.

Referrals come from pediatricians, gynecologists, schools and law enforcement agencies. The fee ranges from free to $65 per hour, depending on a person's ability to pay. Davies-Tong said some clients are accepted even if they can't pay. Some patients' fees are covered by their health insurance.

"Usually, people associate a medical office with the fact that they must be sick," Schutz said. "Out here, because of the freedom and flow of things, we've de-stigmatized things."

Mary Riemersma, executive director of the San Diego-based, 20,000-member California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists, said the environment is an effective therapeutic tool.

"It's really not that different from the techniques that use art, music or dance therapy," Riemersma said. "It is useful, just as long as they don't try to use it with every patient. It might not work with some people. I think of myself. To put me up there in that kind of environment would not work."

Ray Bakaitis, a clinical psychologist in West Los Angeles, added: "One thing that gives people problems is trying to control things. The environment can teach people to trust more, to trust forces outside themselves, and I think that can be very healing."

Almost all of the healing is done outdoors. Instead of reclining in a sterile, white-walled office, Davies-Tong and Schutz escort clients on long, leisurely walks.

Besides six horses, the property includes an assortment of cats, dogs and ducks, a pond and a swimming pool.

For children, the ranch becomes summer camp for an hour. They can go swimming, fishing, rowing or horseback riding. They develop close relationships with the animals while therapists dig out nuggets of truth from their troubled pasts.

With one 10-year-old boy, Davies-Tong said, effective therapy could be conducted only while he was so immersed in another activity, such as fishing or horseback riding, that he couldn't look at her.

"He would always have his back to me in the beginning," Davies-Tong said. "It was very intimate and overwhelming. Now he can sit right across from me and tell me everything going on inside."

Julie, 33, of Canyon Country takes her two children, Robin, 10, and Robert, 9, to weekly sessions at the center. (Their names have been changed for this article.) Last year, after 11 years of marriage, Julie and her husband got a divorce.

"The thing that is so wonderful about it is that they don't even know how much they're being analyzed," Julie said of her children.

In a recent session, Schutz explained to Robin and Robert how their favorite pony, Charlie, had risked his life by not properly taking care of himself during December's downpour. Schutz then asked Robin if she knew anybody like that. Robin didn't hesitate with her response.

"My dad," she said. "For a year or two, he didn't take care of himself."

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