A Bad Situation Becomes Dangerous When Domestic Violence Comes to Light
I was working as a therapist with the Hernandez* family for two months before I started to suspect that there was something else going on. The case originally came in because Manny, a 17-year-old living in the Bronx, was doing drugs, cutting class, violating curfew, and stealing. The family needed Multisystemic Therapy treatment to help navigate these issues and get Manny back on the right path. Little did I know I would soon be treating additional issues—issues beyond Manny’s control.
Manny lived with his mother, stepfather and three younger siblings. His stepfather, Samuel, was calm and kind for the first several weeks but as time went on, I started to notice a change in him around the same time that I noticed a change in Manny. Manny started to attend school more and was working towards getting all his assignments in on time so that he could graduate high school. He also started producing clean drug screens. However, while he was making positive changes in behavior, his stepfather was starting to unveil some very negative ones.
One night during an evening therapy session with Manny, Samuel, and mom, Samuel became very angry after hearing that Manny tested clean on another drug screen. Most families would be thrilled to know that their son was steering clear of drugs, but Samuel’s reaction was just the opposite. He became volatile towards the family and myself—accusing Manny of faking his positive drug screens, and me of lying about his progress. Enraged, he threw his drink at me and stormed out. Afterwards, Mrs. Hernandez was visibly shaking, and Manny became very sad and withdrawn. That night was the first moment I witnessed possible domestic violence in the home, and unfortunately, it was not the last.
Stepfather lashes out despite son's progress
Following that night’s incident, Samuel refused to attend therapy sessions. While the sessions went on in one room of the Hernandez home, he would be in another—listening in and yelling out obscenities. Samuel constantly made negative comments about his stepson’s improvement, stating that it wasn’t real and that Manny was still on drugs and carrying weapons. Later, I found out it was Samuel who was planting the drugs and weapons in Manny’s belongings because he desperately wanted his stepson to be removed from the home. Manny was a threat to his stepfather’s control, especially as he started to get clean and take responsibility for his actions.
Everything came to a head when I arrived for another session and saw wounds on Mrs. Hernandez’s face. She also reported that Samuel threatened bodily harm to the kids. It was clear that the family was in imminent danger, so that night I escorted them out of the home to a shelter placement center. It took three days to get them placed, but I was there every step of the way, supporting them and making sure they were safe. I built their trust not only by being their advocate as they faced barriers within the system, but also because it was the first time someone believed them. Samuel was well-educated, spoke English very well, and was very articulate. He used these skills to maintain an unhealthy sense of control.
Therapist continues treatment in shelter
They say the motto of Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is ‘Whatever it Takes’, but it is more than a motto. It is the backbone of the treatment itself. For example, the Hernandez’s treatment did not stop when the family got to the shelter. Mom and I worked with the school to get Manny the work he needed during the transition time, and I conducted sessions in the domestic violence shelter. While they originally needed me in the home, they really needed me when they were out of it. Thanks to the nature of MST, I could do just that.
Ultimately, despite the many obstacles and disruption, Manny graduated on-time with his high school diploma while at the shelter and enrolled in a college training program. Mom started a job as a home health aide and enrolled in a GED program that also teaches English. In addition, Manny and his relationship with his mother dramatically improved. Before, Manny and his mom did not communicate much and they struggled with trusting each other—Manny had no trust in her because he saw what was going on at home and how she would choose Mr. Hernandez over him. But after Manny showed mom he could be clean, and after mom showed Manny she would stand up for him, warmth increased and so did communication.
The resilience of both mom and Manny was astounding. Their ability to put anger, fear and setbacks on the backburner and focus on the positives enabled them to move towards a better life. It was a very intense and volatile environment to work in as a therapist. However, because Multisystemic Therapy aims to address all aspects of a youth’s life that contribute to their negative behavior, I could intervene and ultimately help the family escape a dangerous situation. I feel beyond privileged to be such a positive impact. This experience was not only humbling for me as a human being, but was such a true testament to how very wonderful this treatment model is.
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality