My first position at Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky was as a Residential Therapist. I worked on our Devou Park campus with young clients who had been removed from their families for the child’s own safety and protection. While working with these children, I developed a mantra – not a particularly wise one, but a true one. I would tell the kids, “This isn’t real life.” I’d explain that although they were with us (for a hopefully short stay) in order to prepare for real life; this wasn’t it. I would tell them that ultimately what defines “real life” is being with the people they love and care about and then those other nuanced moments: sitting on the back porch eating deep dish pizza, throwing popcorn at siblings, staying up past bedtime to watch The Disney Channel.
I shared with them this simple mantra because I wanted to generate hope for something different. I wanted to help them set their sights on that special feeling of home, because every child deserves it.
When I moved from CHNK’s residential treatment program into our Champions community-based services in 2015, I was hesitant to leave my comfortable post as a Residential Therapist. I was also excited to work with a different population of youth. While our residential kids are in state custody, our Champions kids are not. Rather, they’re struggling with behavioral health needs that are negatively impacting their daily lives, including their families. I realized quickly that in community-based services, the stakes are somewhat higher because our clients and their families are in this “real life” but are struggling – and every day, my colleagues and I work with them to preserve or repair it.
Youth and their families come in to services typically for one reason, and it’s not to enjoy the quality of our facilities at our Deaconess Health Check at CHNK location or to visit our therapy dog Louie. It’s beyond snagging some candy from Wendy, our Billing Services Assistant or enjoying the perpetual warmth that defines Lynn, our hospitable Program Assistant. They are with us because something “bad” has happened. Something has disrupted their lives. There’s hope and fear in equal parts, both fueling the desire for “real life” to go back to the way it was before the bad thing happened.
What are these “bad” things? The truth is, they cover a full spectrum: anxiety, depression and mental health, abuse and trauma, addiction and substance use, loss and grief, and family disruption through divorce or change in custodial status. Regardless of the circumstances, families entrust us with their most sacred, soul-altering, scary moments, and they put their trust in our ability to push the needle back to when “real life” was happy and comfortable and stable. Once we’ve established that trust, that is when the real work begins.
But our work goes beyond having a team of highly-skilled clinicians who live and breathe trauma-informed care and keep their finger on the pulse of new evidence-based models to reinforce their skills. To effectively do our work, we must remember that the single most relevant factor when trying to positively impact a client’s “real life” is … family. A clinical supervisor once told me that family is what anchors us. It provides context and meaning to our lives. For this reason, when we treat the “bad stuff” in our clients’ lives, we have the family help define what they need to work on; we partner with them to establish how collectively we are going to accomplish the goals they’ve identified. It’s truly a collaborative effort between us and the child and the larger family unit; honestly, the family is the best expert on their own lives.
Next, we execute the plan that has been established. And we need lots of help to do it! Remember “It takes a village to raise a child?” We meet and work alongside everyone in that village! The families we serve have a variety of untapped resources that can impact the treatment plan. These resources might be the gruff soccer coach, the quirky math teacher, the grumpy aunt who lives upstairs, or the elderly next door neighbor. This diverse group operates as our “extended” team, helping us identify and define what the family is doing right and how to capitalize on that before addressing what’s wrong.
This involves a lot of travel for our clinical team. “Real life” doesn’t happen at our Champions headquarters on Fifth Street, so we are willing to go where the child and family are. If the problem is at home, we go to the home. A great vantage point for working with a family is seeing who’s at the kitchen table or who gets the television remote. If a child is struggling at school, you guessed it, we are going there to meet and talk with the teachers, to better understand what might be creating a challenge for the client. Then there are some who prefer the comfort and privacy of our office space; that’s okay too. There’s no one size fits all model.
Our successes look different for everyone. For one client, it might be talking about the family’s new swimming pool that has created a new opportunity for family fun, instead of expressing anger or frustration with family members. For another, it might be getting through an entire month without using drugs or alcohol. And for another, maybe it’s beginning to feel comfortable and safe in a new family – and being able to express that feeling verbally. Sometimes it’s even us connecting the family with a community partner or other untapped resource that can provide motivation for the client; quirky math teachers can be a real motivator! 🙂
In doing this work, I am humbled every day. I am reminded that regardless of our years of schooling to support our clinical work, it’s the families that truly know what will and what won’t work for themselves and their children. My team and I are here to simply help that process along – tapping into the issue and assisting with a plan of execution. And through it all, we continually keep in mind that this is “real life” for our clients and families – the stakes are high, and to these kids … and all kids, really … one thing matters more than life circumstances, custodial status, trauma, mental health needs, or any other factor – the sense of family.
If I or one of my team members might be able to help you or a loved one, please reach out. We are here to help.