'I got my child back': In-home therapist helps Josh remain in home while parents learn new skills

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

Nancy didn’t know what to expect when she signed up for in-home family counseling.

All she knew was that she wanted her son Josh to have a better childhood than she’d had.

Nancy had grown up in a neglectful home. “My mom was always out with her boyfriends and my dad was always in the barroom,” she says. “We pretty much raised ourselves.”

Her parents knew she was smoking and drinking at age 12, but didn’t seem to care.

“I didn’t have a childhood. I had my first child when I was 16,” she says.

Likewise, Dave, who was Josh’s dad and her partner, had endured extensive abuse throughout his childhood.

With no positive role models between them, Nancy and Dave had no idea how to deal with Josh when he started acting out.

He was using drugs. While high, he became violent, punching holes in the walls of their home and occasionally striking Nancy.

“I had the bruises to show for it,” she says.

It wasn’t until a probation officer told Nancy she could put her son on probation for his unruly behavior that she saw a glimmer of relief. While in court, Nancy learned about the option of intensive in-home counseling, which is offered to families whose children are at risk of out-of-home placement.

But it took a few more detours – including a physical fight between Josh and his dad and another trip to court – before Nancy committed to counseling.

She was concerned about a counselor entering their home and evaluating their parenting. “I thought she was going to look down her nose at us and it would be this counselor with all these degrees,” Nancy says. “I thought, ‘I really do not want to do this, but I will do anything to fight to get my son back.”

But Nancy was pleasantly surprised when Meryle Vinje, the family counselor from Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, showed up. “Oh my god, I loved her. She was so down to earth,” Nancy says. “I don’t know how she did it. It was like sitting down and just having a conversation, and she could just pull things out from it.”

Nancy was surprised to see how all members of the family opened up to the counselor. “Dave would be sitting there with tears running down his face and I’d be thinking, ‘Man, you even broke him open,” she says.

Nancy learned that she was actually doing many things right. Her own childhood had made her decide early on that she would do the opposite of everything her own parents did. As a result, she had many of the characteristics of a conscientious parent. But while Dave’s harsh upbringing made him be too hard on Josh, Nancy was sometimes too accommodating.

Once, when Nancy was alone with Meryle, the counselor told her: “You overcompensate toward him for the guilt of how his father treats him. You need to stop it. Stop giving him everything and make him earn it.”

When Josh realized his mother would no longer let him do whatever he wanted, “all hell broke loose,” Nancy recalls. “He was no longer getting his way and started throwing temper tantrums.”

In an act of protest, Josh quit school. Nancy was furious, but held her ground. She told him he could quit, but he couldn’t leave the property, he couldn’t have friends over and he couldn’t have his phone.

His school strike lasted for two weeks. Josh was furious with both his mother and the counselor, but Nancy stood firm – consulting with Meryle whenever she needed extra support.

And then: “One day it broke. He went back to school and he became Josh again,” Nancy says. “He started talking respectfully and including me in his life again. I got my child back.”

Meryle made her last home visit in the fall of 2017, but Nancy has kept in contact with her to let her know how everyone is doing. She says Josh’s behavior has continually improved, and he has returned to the son she once knew.

But then Josh hit another bump – getting caught for possessing a small amount of marijuana right after his 18th birthday.

“He thought his life was over,” Nancy says. “I told him, ‘Your future is what you make it.’ You need to stop and think about doing anything before you do it. Every decision you make is your consequence and your future.’”

Even as she said it, Nancy was surprised by the wisdom of her own words. She thanks Meryle for not only giving her valuable insight about parenting, but also for reassuring her that she already had the instincts of a good parent.

“Meryle was right there to root me on and guide me,” she says. “I told her she was my angel sent to me by God. I’m surprised by how well it worked out.”

Intensive In-Home Family Counseling is available to families in which children are involved with the juvenile court system due to illegal or high-risk behavior, and are at risk of being removed from their families by child-welfare or Department of Corrections officials.

Some families enroll voluntarily; others are court-ordered to participate. All services are free to the family, as costs are covered by the state Department of Corrections and North Dakota Medicaid.

This counseling is termed "intensive" because parent and child receive counseling sessions multiple times per week for a period of about six months. Therapists typically address the mental health conditions underlying the high-risk behavior. Many of the clients and their families wish to work on communication and relationship-building, conflict resolution, educational challenges and substance abuse. Learn more about our Intensive In-Home Family Counseling by contacting Georgia at georgiah@lssnd.org


NEXT WEEK: Meryle's perspective: Hear from the other side of the table. Learn how in-home family counselors take on the formidable job of saving families through intensive and in-depth therapy.

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