JCCA’s Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT) is a short-term, family-centered program to help children and families resolve problems resulting from trauma such as abuse or violence. Naethra Sreekrishna, who has worked in the program for four years, is just one example of our dedicated, extraordinary staff. She generously shares her insights and experience with us here.
JCCA: How important is working with the family in helping a child?
NS: I can’t emphasize enough how important it is, especially in BSFT. We’re focused entirely on working with the whole family and this has been a really powerful and significant shift in the field of child welfare.
JCCA: What kinds of issues and trauma do you see in the families who come to you?
NS: Generally, we see families in which the conflicts between the parents and child may have gotten out of control. They may have volatile fights, and the parents are struggling with their child’s defiance and combativeness. Because of this, they may have trouble meeting their child’s needs. Maybe the child is skipping school, or not taking their medication. Frequently, there is an intergenerational history of being exposed to violence in the community or the home. There may be poverty and its attendant stress. Cultural factors sometimes play a role: the differences between mainstream American culture and a family’s own immigrant history may clash. We work with families from many cultures—primarily African American and those from the Caribbean and Latin America, with a wide cross-section of religions. We’re also beginning to see more Asian families.
JCCA: What is the nature of the work?
NS: We provide weekly family therapy in the home for about 16 weeks. By the end of this period, we hope to have created a momentum in the family that has enabled them to make the changes they want to make. We try very hard not to create an ongoing dependency between us as providers and the families; we want them to attain stability without the continued need of preventive services.
JCCA: How does the work transform families’ lives?
NS: We emphasize the need to work with the entire family, instead of focusing on the child’s problems. We try to move away from the idea of “fixing this kid,” which can be a hard shift for the family to make when they’re in crisis. We become sources of support to the parents and help them examine family patterns, the way family members handle problems, and what’s going on in the relationship that’s leading to those problems. We want to heal the dynamic between family members, enabling them to address the difficulties in their lives more effectively. They learn to bounce back from crises and become more resilient. It’s healthier for everyone and helps avoid continued involvement with the child welfare system.
JCCA: What are the rewards of your work?
NS: I think it’s about providing professionally and clinically sound services, that embody all the core values of social work, to families who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. I think JCCA has a strong ethical core regarding its commitment to clients that seems absolutely unwavering. The majority of our families have some level of successful outcomes and that’s very satisfying. Our families respond so well to empathic counseling; they often view it as a positive opportunity for themselves.
JCCA: What’s challenging?
NS: Families have concrete and multi-faceted needs: financial, housing, medical, etc. It’s difficult to address their relational needs if you can’t address those other issues. We encourage parents to get their own mental health needs met, so they can work better with their children.
Sidebar: Snapshot of a BSFT family
NS: A mother and her daughter, 15, came to JCCA because they were having explosive arguments. They would throw around furniture and break things. The daughter was also threatening to harm herself. It was clear she was depressed, but hadn’t received treatment. The family had a history of domestic violence: the father, who left them when the daughter was 8, had been abusive to the mother.
The daughter didn’t go to school enough and was continually tardy. They had a history of being in homeless shelters, although at the time they came to us, they were in supportive housing. At my very first meeting with them, they got into a volatile verbal fight. In a way, it’s actually encouraging when I see that much passion between a parent and child, because it usually means there’s a lot to build on and work with. You don’t get that angry if you don’t love each other a lot!
They responded quickly to counseling and were really, really, committed. They never cancelled a session and were willing to talk and do the work that’s never easy. The daughter was thoughtful and insightful. When we started, mom couldn’t accept her daughter’s depression—there was a cultural stigma (they’re Latina) about seeing mental illness as a weakness. Mom also couldn’t understand why the trauma of family abuse couldn’t just be gotten over—she felt she had been able to get over it in her own family history. But by the end, because they still had this close bond, mom was finally able to hear her daughter. It was so gratifying when she told her daughter, “I never thought I’d understand your depression, but when you’re feeling bad, I want you to come and talk to me, and I’ll get you help.” Just that level of understanding her daughter’s needs was incredible.
I like to think I’m a tool families can utilize; I can only be as effective as the family wants me to be. In this case, mother and daughter stopped fighting and learned the skills to handle conflict better. The daughter went to school more often and began seeing a psychologist for her depression. They were both a pleasure to work with and we wrapped up within our timeline. A month later, they even came to a client party at our office!