Q: How can therapy help families reconnect?
A: When I started to come to the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, a preventive services agency, my main objective was to get help talking to my son’s father.
Since I was a child I had dreamed about meeting a good man who wanted to share my dreams to marry and form my own family. Unfortunately, I met the father of my child and a little while later I was pregnant. We tried to form a family, but since the beginning the relationship was always full of conflicts, fights, angry shouts and a lack of respect. I talked and talked with him many times. He always said that everything would get better, but in reality we always returned to the same thing.
When we separated, I wanted to reach an agreement with him that would benefit our son. But he refused to go with me to family counseling. Still, I had confidence that the Center could give me strength to continue fighting for my dreams.
I have a counselor named Liza Blank and in our two years together she’s been more than a counselor for me. She’s been a support, a friend, a confidant. I’ve been able to deal with my fears and sadness from the past by unloading everything that I’ve been carrying inside me that I wasn’t able to share with anybody, either because of shame or because I didn’t want to hear their reproaches. It’s difficult to find someone who listens sincerely, attentively and without reproaches, who meets you where you are and who loves and accepts you as you are.
For me, the Center has been a place where I get so much support. I can talk about my fears, my conflicts. I can cry without shame, and get ideas for improving my social, economic and moral life. Coming here has liberated me and given me the strength to build a good path in life for my son and myself.
I know that more families could benefit from the support of places like the Center, so I spoke with Liza about how preventive service agencies help families.
Q: What kind of support do families get here?
A: This is an organization that supports families in Sunset Park. We help people improve their family relationships and economic situations. We do that through family counseling and advocacy, and by giving children and families opportunities to learn new things in after school programs, like sports and arts.
Our way of doing counseling is therapy and advocacy together. Family therapy is about working with families as a whole, helping them learn to communicate in a respectful way, to resolve conflicts and to enjoy each other and get along better.
A lot of therapy is about increasing people’s abilities to be good parents. We watch them with their children and help them learn new ways to be with and discipline their children.
Parents learn a lot about spending positive time with their children. It’s not that they didn’t want to spend positive time with their kids before—they know to do that. But the space and experience of therapy allows parents to reflect on their personal challenges and become more self-aware. They come to a place where they feel they can do more with and for their children.
But it’s not just therapy once a week and that’s it. It’s pretty involved. The families we work with also may need help to manage systems. We help parents get children into early intervention services, special education classes in school, or into daycare. If the kids are in daycare, the parents are able to be employed and there’s less stress in their lives.
We help parents develop skills to deal with public assistance or school issues. Unfortunately, they often don’t get treated the right way. So we might go with them to public assistance or help them make phone calls if there’s a problem.
No one thinks you can help a child just by sitting in this office, listening. By combining practical help for the family and counseling, we learn about the client and develop a relationship. You learn a lot even by going to a public assistance meeting with a parent.
Q: What types of people come here?
A: Anybody who lives in Sunset Park. We work with anyone who lives here. You don’t have to have papers or Medicaid. It’s completely free. You just call and say you want to make an appointment. You go to your first appointment and tell the problem you’re having and we go from there.
People come in because they hear that we have concrete services they need. They don’t come in saying, “I’m depressed.” They say, “I need public assistance,” and we work on both.
Some people are also sent to us by ACS—they have “indicated cases,” meaning there was an investigation and they were told to go to preventive services. Those parents get the same services and support as everyone else.
We also have a small neighborhood foster care program, with about 25 foster families in the neighborhood. Our idea is that children should stay in Sunset Park so parents can visit the child and be reunified. It’s traumatic to be sent far away.
But our entire program was created with decreasing foster care in mind. If you give families support and help, they do not get to the stress level where children get taken away.
Q: Do you have any advice for your clients?
A: To find help. Do not be afraid to find someone you can trust, someone to share with. Many people think getting help is wrong. It’s OK to need support.
For a while we had a women’s group, because some of the single moms seem pretty isolated. It’s not that they really need therapy. They need a place to meet friends, have a distraction, feel part of a community. The women came once a week, talked, and had others to share their lives with and trust, rather than just a social worker whose life is different.
You can contact the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park by calling (718) 788-3500. Or find preventive agencies in your neighborhood by calling 311.