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Family Reunification Therapy - David's Story

David was a 12 year old youth who came into treatment foster care when his drug addicted mother could no longer care for him. David had begun sexually acting out with neighbor youth and running “wild” in the trailer park. His county social worker had offered David and his mother many different services and interventions in order to build their strengths and keep David at home. As much as David and his mother cared about each other, the two could not keep David and the community safe.

David entered one of our Specialized Group Care (SGC) homes for sexually offending youth and spent the first months angry and reluctant to engage in anything positive. He used sexually provocative language at school, openly defied teacher requests and refused to participate in his therapy. His Community Care Programs treatment team taught him about how trauma affects the brain, learning and moods. David couldn’t have cared less.

David’s mother lived a roller coaster life of periodic sobriety punctuated by months of addiction.  Every time David thought she was clean and sober enough for him to go home, she would start using again and land in jail. Termination of Parental Rights warnings were given many times but his mother just couldn’t stay clean.

In one final effort to create permanency for David with a family member, his absent, biologic father was located and agreed to participate in a Family Assessment. Jim hadn’t see David since he was 5 years old despite many efforts by the county to contact him. Later, Jim would say that he thought his own addiction would harm David and he felt that David was “better off not knowing me”. So it was sheer bravery that brought Jim to our waiting area where he sat nervously looking out the window for his son to arrive.

A Family Assessment is the first step in Family Reunification Therapy and introduces participants to the idea that trauma affects everyone’s brains. We invite participants to consider the idea that traumatic experiences lead to fight, flight and freeze reactions that can become stubborn response patterns over time and practice.  Jim nodded his head and shared that alcohol was his ‘flight’ pattern. David watched closely and soon added that ‘fight’ was his reaction to distress. An anatomical model of the brain helped to deepen David’s curiosity and gave father and son a common focus for their personal discussion.  

Trauma-Informed Care forms the foundation of Family Reunification Therapy. Learning how our emotional brains work takes feelings of blame and shame out of the discussion for both youth and their parents. Parents often feel ashamed of their parenting mistakes and this shame or blame keeps them out of therapy. We teach and coach ways to calm the emotional brain and practice these strategies together. Everyone learns to use the exhale to release tension. Everyone learns to widen their emotional vocabulary and understand that thoughts may not be true. Everyone learns ways to create emotional safety for themselves and family members.

Fast forward 12 months and David is now living with his father, Jim and Jim’s partner, Deb. David attends 9th grade at a nearby high school and has learned to play the sax. Despite a rocky first year of high school with conflicts over organizing assignments, getting homework done/passed in and participating in family outings, David and his father are still together.  They continue to work on their relationship and are learning how their emotional brains interact. Jim is learning how not to trigger David’s ‘fight’ reactions and how to engage his son’s thinking brain to solve a conflict. David sees his mother whenever she can arrange it and the family continues to problem solve with the Family Reunification therapist on a regular basis