Psychologist Makes Her Mark Bringing Together Families

Kimberly Renk, Ph.D., is rebuilding families by taking psychology off the couch and into disadvantaged Orlando communities.

Renk is a child psychologist by training, and she shares her more than 20 years of experience in both the classroom and the local judicial system. Her work at UCF includes leading the Understanding Young Children and Families research clinic and laboratory, which explores how families with children aged 0-5 are impacted by intergenerational trauma. That work easily translates to her consultant role with the child welfare agency Embrace Families and the Ninth Judicial Circuit’s Early Childhood Court. In that role, Renk works alongside other experts to help parents regain custody of their children.

In both places, Renk advocates for better understanding of young children who don’t have the means to fully communicate about their traumatic experiences.

“Small children can tell us a lot by their behaviors. You just have to know what to look for,” Renk explained.

Working with children is a lifelong passion for Renk, who wrote a mock college admissions essay in sixth grade about becoming a child psychologist. For a short time during her undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois, she considered medical school. She distinctly remembers the moment she abandoned that idea.

“There was a preschool on campus. I remember walking past and watching the kids out on the playground for a couple of minutes and something just clicked. I realized I needed to be with kids somehow,” Renk said.

Today, Renk feeds that passion by providing parenting programs and child-parent psychotherapy to parents who lose custody of their children. She’s one of a team of advocates who volunteer through Florida’s Early Childhood Court to help parents regain custody of their children.

Parents typically have 12 months to complete certain assigned tasks, which can range from kicking a drug habit to steady employment. Within that period, Renk is teaching parents how to meet the emotional needs of their children and providing therapy so parents can cope with their own triggers and past traumas. She’s also working with young children to help them work through some of the things they’ve witnessed like domestic violence.

The early months are always rough and filled with raw emotion. But reuniting families and setting them up for future success is incredibly rewarding, Renk said. More importantly, Renk understands that interrupting a cycle of abuse in this generation will probably have a ripple effect on generations to come.

“When you see a parent who previously showed little affection scoop up their kids spontaneously, it’s a beautiful thing,” Renk said. “They’re on a path to greatness, and I can’t think of anything better.”



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