In-home therapy helps a family in crisis stay together

The first four years of Fini’s life were spent living in homeless shelters. When her mother abandoned her at a Department of Children and Families’ office, it was evident Fini had been neglected and possibly abused. She only had eight words that she could speak. She didn’t know how to sleep in a bed or use silverware. And every time she heard a siren, she would run and hide — a reminder of the homeless shelter next to a fire station where she once lived.

Fini faced a possible future of being bounced around from one foster home to the next, or growing up in residential care, and never finding a family or place to call home. Then Becky and Marianne, a married couple looking to expand their family, met Fini at an adoption party. They already had a 6-year-old daughter, Emily, whom they had adopted as a baby. There was something special about Fini that caught their heart.

After the adoption party, Fini’s social worker asked Marianne and Becky if they would consider being her pre-adoptive family. Fini moved in with them just before the start of school and her fifth birthday. The first two months were wonderful. Fini was smart, sweet and nurturing. She especially loved to take care of her dolls and stuffed animals. She enjoyed going to school. She started to use more words.

Then Marianne had a family crisis and had to leave home for a few days. When she returned, there was a dramatic change in Fini. She started to become violent, especially towards Marianne and Emily. It was as if Marianne’s absence had unleashed something within Fini, perhaps fear that she might not return. Since Fini spoke so few words, she was using her body to express her emotions — kicking, biting, scratching, breaking things.

Over the next several months Fini’s behavior continued to worsen. Marianne and Becky tried everything to get Fini the help that she needed. They felt on edge all the time and worried that if they couldn’t keep Fini safe in their home, they might not be able to keep her at all. Things finally escalated to a crisis point and she was placed in a therapeutic residential program for two months.

When Fini returned home, the family began to work with Safe at Home (SAH), a program of The Home for Little Wanderers that provides in-home therapy. A team of two therapists, Janet Novotny and Courtney Rohr, visited twice a week to help Marianne and Becky find strategies to manage Fini’s behavior and keep her safe. The team’s support ranged from practical tips to emotional support. If Fini was having a bad day, the SAH team wouldn’t leave until everyone felt safe, even if it meant staying well into the night. According to Marianne, “They did whatever needed to be done to help our family cope with incredible difficulties.”

Fini had never had the opportunity to learn how to deal with big feelings, whether they were angry, scared, happy or sad. The SAH team helped Fini find ways to handle her emotions when they would start to overwhelm her. Marianne and Becky got a trampoline so she had a place to release some of her energy and set up a tent in her bedroom as a “safe space.” Fini gradually began to learn how to slow herself down and tell adults what she needed.

Once the family got to a place where they were not fearful all the time that Fini was going to hurt herself or them, the SAH team worked on improving the strained relationship between the two girls. Emily had been struggling with feeling safe around Fini and accepting her as a sister. Through a creative process that included everything from role playing and board games to arts and crafts projects, the SAH team helped Emily and Fini to have a more normal sibling relationship.

About a year after Safe at Home began working with the family, Fini was adopted on National Adoption Day — a huge moment for her and her family. Fini, who even made adoption certificates for her stuffed animals, was especially excited about changing her last name. She would point to the adoption certificate hung up in her dining room and state with pride “The judge said I’m part of this family forever.”

“The Safe at Home team made it possible for us to adopt Fini. They saved our family.” — Becky, Fini’s mom