Quick-thinking MST therapist diffuses domestic-violence situation
Multisystemic Therapy (MST) sessions are held in the client’s home. It makes sense since that’s often where a youth acts out. The therapy focuses on addressing all parts of young person’s life that contribute to chronic and violent behavior—the home and family, schools and teachers, neighborhoods and friends. MST recognizes that each aspect plays a critical role in a youth's world and each system requires attention when effective change is needed to improve the quality of life for youth and their families.
I visited the home once and reviewed my notes from the initial session before taking the short drive to my new client’s home. A truancy officer, citing low school attendance, had referred the youth to MST. The plan was to meet with Mom to begin assessing the strengths and needs of the child’s ecology. Then, I could tailor the treatment approach to best capitalize on their strong points.
I knocked on the door, and Mom answered promptly. She welcomed me in and went upstairs to get some paperwork. She was wearing her bathrobe, which seemed strange because we had scheduled around her nursing classes at the community college. Though he should have been in school, her son, Jim, joined me in the dining room. I chatted with him casually. A man that I hadn’t met walked through the kitchen. I greeted him. He said “hello” and retreated upstairs.
When Mom joined us, I introduced the idea of the strengths-and-needs assessment and took notes as she and Jim answered my questions about the neighborhood, school and his friends. Mom was jotting notes, too. At a break in our discussion, she pushed a card across the table.
Help us! The guy that is here is my younger son’s and daughter’s father. He has a gun and he is walking around with it on him and I don’t know what to do!! We had a disagreement today and he is upset.
Safety being the first priority, I looked around and saw two exits. One led to a back courtyard, but it was on the other side of the kitchen counter. Another was up several steps to the street. I mouthed to Mom, “Can he hear me?” She shook her head no. Seeking the best strategy to get us all to safety, I asked her quietly, “Should I go to my car and make a phone call?” Her eyes got wide. “Don’t leave. I don’t know what he’ll do.”
Next, I suggested they walk out to my car, and we leave together. She couldn’t go. Her 5-year-old daughter was upstairs with him. The next logical thing was to send a message to a co-worker to send help. I texted my supervisor, Mike, the address and asked him to inform the police. I told him there was a man with a gun, but that I was okay. He responded saying that he and the police were on their way. I quietly told Mom to watch the front window. If she saw the police, she was to go to the front door quickly. I returned to the strengths-and-needs assessment, asking get-to-know-you questions in a light tone.
After several minutes, the man came downstairs and went out without saying anything. “Does he have keys to the house?” I asked Mom. No, she answered. I instructed her to lock the door and get her daughter downstairs. I asked Jim to draw the drapes.
What was behind the potential violence?
I wanted to understand what led to such a volatile situation. With a clear understanding, I would be able to work with the family to develop strategies to alter future interactions before they reached such a dangerous level. Mike, my supervisor, arrived. As we waited for the police, we gathered more information to assess additional immediate risks. Where were her other children? Would the man go to their schools? Mom called the schools and made sure the children were safely on their buses headed home.
We were also concerned for the family’s safety, not only immediately, but for the rest of the evening. We needed to find a place where they could go for the night and be out of harm’s way. Mom called relatives while Mike and I looked for safe houses.
When the police arrived, Mom reported what had happened. She and her son thought the man had probably gone down the street to a friend’s house. The police investigated, but the neighbor said he wasn’t inside. The officers told Mom how to request an order of protection, but said they couldn’t charge him with a violation. They did agree to stay in front of the house until the rest of the children returned. Mom arranged to go to her mother’s house in a neighboring suburb.
Now that she had a safe place, Mom went upstairs to get dressed and pack while Jim got food from the kitchen. Once the other boys returned, we stowed everything into our cars and drove the family to Grandma’s.
Safety plans in place
Given the intensity of the situation, I met Mom the next morning at a neighborhood park. The boys were at school, and the 5-year-old kept busy in the playground. Based on what I knew about each person and how the situation escalated, we created safety plans and established a time line for requesting the order of protection. Over the next several days, we maintained frequent contact so that I could support her through the process and adjust plans as needed. Unwilling to keep her family uprooted, Mom returned home. After a continuance and two trips to court, she was granted the order of protection and full custody of their shared children until further appeal.
On the way back from court, Mom and I discussed the perseverance it took for her to follow through and that this strength would be a resource moving forward to create more change in her family. Mom is now working part time and anticipating the new college semester. She hasn’t had contact with her children’s father since that day.
An MST therapist doesn’t usually have to deal with a gun-wielding father, and I didn’t walk into the home that day expecting to have to devise a safety plan. But because MST is focused on addressing all aspects of a child’s life that contribute to chronic offending, I was equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary to craft one to keep this family out of harm’s way. The framers might not have had this particular situation in mind, but because of the nine principles, I was able to intervene and ultimately prevent a harmful outcome.
Gina Ferrara is an MST Supervisor at Places for People in St. Louis, Missouri.