Editor's note: Today marks the first of three stories honoring three employees who are retiring after years of dedicated service to LSSND.
Whenever Dennis Larkin encounters difficult clients or tough situations, he immediately turns to John 16:33.
“In the world you will have hardship but be courageous. I have conquered the world.”
Those words have repeatedly reassured and rejuvenated him in his 21 years working with people accused of domestic violence through LSSND’s Violence Free program.
When Dennis retires at the end of this month, Violence Free will lose a seasoned and dedicated counselor who has helped hundreds of men and women learn how to be better partners and parents.
It’s the type of work that consistently challenges a therapist, but can reap considerable rewards in the long run.
“This basically gives me encouragement and is probably why I have stayed in the field of counseling for so long,” Dennis says. “When someone changes, it gives me a boost to ‘keep on trucking.’”
Participants in Violence Free are usually referred there by the courts. Ideally, individuals who complete Violence Free will take ownership for their past actions while shifting their belief systems related to safety and respect in significant partner relationships. Dennis reminds us that domestic violence is not about anger but a belief system that gives permission to control others.
Treatment itself happens in a group setting, where members are held accountable by their peers.
“Offenders spend a lot of time blaming their partner,” Dennis says. “If you have people who are further along in the program, they will confront the person. The belief is the confrontation is more effective coming from a peer than from a social worker or counselor who is ‘paid to confront them.’”
In his time with Violence Free, Dennis has treated individuals of all ages, occupations and backgrounds.
In fact, the one thing he wishes more people knew about intimate partner violence is that it is an equal-opportunity offender.
“People should realize that domestic violence can occur in any family,” he says.
From volunteer to leader of our Violence Free program
Dennis first came to North Dakota from Rhode Island in 1974 to work at the Youth Correctional Center (formerly the State Industrial School) in Mandan. He later worked under what would become the Department of Human Services, counseling adolescents who got in trouble with the law and were placed in custody of the state.
In 1990, Dennis was a full-time counselor at West Central Human Service Center, where he also ran a group for sex offenders. At about the same time, he began working part time with LSSND to provide individual and couple’s counseling.
When LSS brought Violence Free to the Bismarck area a few years later, Dennis volunteered
to become one of the first facilitators, figuring his experience with offenders might be helpful. Indeed, it was. Over time, his work with Violence Free became his primary focus and he became a team leader.
Since 1999, when Dennis first got involved with the LSS program, VG groups have also sprung up in Williston, Minot and Dickinson – often at the request of other agencies in those communities and sometimes to fill gaps left by the discontinuation of other offender programs.
“Dennis came to us like many clinicians do – to engage in meaningful part-time work on top of their full-time jobs," says Janell Regimbal, vice president of Children's Services at LSSND and Dennis' supervisor. "They do this because they see an important client need to be met and see a fit with our mission-based work. We are grateful that he stayed ‘awhile’ – 30 years!”
Regimbal speaks admiringly of his positive attitude and willingness to keep moving forward in this demanding vocation.
“In all the years I have known Dennis I don’t ever recall him not being upbeat. After years of engaging in difficult and emotionally challenging work that is a true testament to his tenacity and also that he must have truly found the counseling career field a perfect fit.” – Janell Regimbal, vice president of Children's Services, LSSND
Dennis attributes his resilience to an ability to maintain a firm boundary between his work life and his personal life. "In any human service field, it is important to take of yourself, to not take on responsibility for what a person does – they choose what they want to do – and to leave the job at the office," he says.
With retirement just ahead of him, Dennis plans to remain in Bismarck, where he can be near his children and grandchildren. Looking forward, he plans to increase his time volunteering and reading.
And looking back, he can take pride in helping to restore peace in many households once splintered by violence and fear.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is people are capable of changing if they choose to,” he says.
By Tammy Swift