You are the director of family support navigation services (FSN) for the Center for Family Life and Recovery (CFLR). What is CFLR’s mission, and what inspires you to do this work?

Our mission is to support individuals with substance use disorders, mental health challenges, and behavioral issues by providing hope, providing help, promoting wellness, and transforming lives. That is what drew me to CFLR! My “why” is always about connecting with and understanding people in my life and my professional world. It is also about seeing the puzzle pieces that make the big picture more complete. CFLR does this in many incredible ways, with recovery, prevention, and behavioral services integrated into different collaborative arenas!

In my life, I’ve always been around individuals who were affected by substance use disorder. One of the things that I grew up learning is that family dynamics play an essential role in the recovery journey. Finding recovery and joy in living life with purpose and connection is monumental. CFLR’s focus on family made it something I wanted to be a part of.

Being a family member of someone with a substance use disorder or mental illness is not something you hope for, but it can be transformative for the whole family. When we build that connection between people, we see success in the journey. Most incredibly, you also hear many families say, “My life is so much stronger because of the things we learned as part of the recovery process. My family is so much stronger because of it.”

The fact that individuals are more likely to be successful when the family is involved is a core principle of Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT), which is a treatment approach used by FSN. Dr. Robert Meyers created CRAFT to help family members of individuals with an identified substance use disorder. The training improves family dynamics and teaches the family how to support their loved one effectively. CRAFT focuses on three main goals: (1) helping a loved one reduce their substance use, (2) helping a loved one engage in treatment (or another recovery program), and (3) decreasing stress and increasing wellness in the family. That third goal might be the most powerful to watch; it becomes the foundation for establishing psychological safety, reducing nervous system responses, and increasing the release of oxytocin, building strength in the family’s bonds, and impacting addiction.

With the FSN program and CRAFT, family members are no longer bystanders waiting for someone to get better. We empower families to be an integral reason their loved one finds their foundation in recovery—they are an incredible piece of recovery capital. One of the most important concepts we practice in all of our programs is that we treat the participants as the expert in their own journeys and a resource in their own lives. We help them create the path they want to walk, and we walk with them.

You train families as well as community professionals on the science of addiction. Why is it essential to educate the families of people in substance use and addiction recovery?

I would love everyone to be educated on the science of addiction and also the science of recovery. I cannot tell you how many individuals in treatment have never been exposed to what happens in the brain from substance dependence and how we can encourage healing. Family members are also rarely exposed to this.

It is so helpful to understand that there is a neurochemical change in the brain from substance dependence. It not only takes time to heal but while the brain is healing, pleasure, reward, survival, and even connection to others will be affected.

After learning about the science of addiction, individuals can understand that there are tools that can help support brain healing. It becomes an opportunity to find ways to be active in recovery and accept that healing doesn’t happen overnight. This realization helps remove a lot of the moral dilemma about whether addiction is a choice. More importantly, it sets a stage for navigating expectations, increasing positive neurotransmitter release, and finding that joy, purpose, and connection that makes life worth it and also protects against addiction!

CFLR is a community treatment provider but has created programs for individuals involved in criminal legal settings. Describe those activities and why they are needed.

CFLR is involved in several aspects of the criminal justice system, but I want to back up a little and share how it started. Before joining CFLR, I was a counselor in outpatient and residential settings. Starting in 2007, I began to work with treatment courts (known officially in New York as problem-solving courts). I saw that the treatment court model was a great platform to work with individuals on their recovery journey. I could see the benefits of wraparound care and support, the accountability of weekly meetings, and the connection with the judge.

In 2017, after I had joined CFLR, we started an incredible statewide team with the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS), led by Lureen McNeil and the Unified Court Systems’ problem-solving courts. Our goal was to get peer professionals into the problem-solving court system. We know that lived experience is so powerful.

We included amazing trainers and on-the-ground engaged leaders in the recovery field, and we worked with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Bringing Recovery Supports to Scale Technical Assistance Center Strategy. The plan was to infuse the benefits of coaching and lived experience into a collaborative care system where regular contact between the providers and the participants could flourish.

The current system, which has been my dream throughout my career, involves family members. FSN services are working with the significant others/partners of the program participants, recovery advocates working with the participants, prevention family peer coaches working with the parents and children involved, and families engaging in family clinical therapy with our partner, DRN Counseling. This system is most engaged with our Oneida County Family Treatment Court (FTC).

The crux of FSN is understanding each other’s experiences and becoming teammates in the best way they can for each other. As the family support navigator, I work with parents and guardians on communication tools. I teach them how to give and receive support throughout the family recovery journey. They will all learn about the science of addiction and recovery, and we often also work on setting boundaries. The greatest focus is on communication tools and connecting with each other in ways they feel validated, supported, and more bonded.

The recovery advocate focuses on today and moving forward. We know that recovery is much bigger than sobriety; it is about living. There is a strong focus on enhancing lifestyle, having fun, and reintegrating into the community. We can meet with people anywhere, which is also super important. It is a little different with the jail-based participants, but we want to help people live in their own spaces and journeys. The recovery advocates are Certified Recovery Peer Advocates, and they might take a person to a yoga class, practice budgeting and grocery shopping, or even share a meal together while navigating successes and challenges of their recovery journey.

The prevention family peer coach (FPC) is also a lived-experience-based role that focuses on connection and needs within parent and child relationships. Primarily this role focuses on parenting challenges and tools but also touches on advocacy, connection, and family integration with the community. Our FPC might work on boundary setting with a parent and then use fun activities that infuse the boundary at a playground or during a family game. It’s real-time practice with parents that includes the kids.  Each partner has space to explore their needs and bring them together!

We know there’s often trauma in the family. The clinical services give the individual a space to process that journey safely, so we can all move forward together. For a child, it might mean processing their anger and resentment for being the adult or having a parent leave. For a parent, it might mean processing the anxiety that happens in the house when the loved one returns or even how to engage someone most successfully while considering their mental health challenges.

All service provider partners meet weekly to discuss the participants’ work and stay very connected on the strategies to ensure they are all moving together toward the same goals. We take that time in the beginning to start with where the family is first and identify their common goals. It is time-intensive for families, so the number of families we can serve at one time is smaller. The wonderful thing is that the impact happens quickly. Most families have a weekly parent prep and full-family sessions, and services rotate within the full-family sessions. They are very strategic, goal-oriented sessions. For example, if the adults are meeting one week, the kids may be working with the clinician and alternating with the FPC to prep for next week. The next week, the FSN may meet with the significant others while the parent and kids work together in a session. It’s quite a dance, and we are still growing in how we manage it all strategically!

We have extended the FTC programming set-up to our county jail. The jail-based program includes collaboration with prevention services, family support navigation services, recovery peer advocates, and clinical services for the family. We are just getting off the ground, but the goal is to engage with people and work on tools during incarceration that can be used during that time and when they have integrated into the community. The individuals receive a warm handoff and stay connected with the same services and facilitators as they move into the community. Both FTC and jail setups include group opportunities and individualized family opportunities.

I encourage all communities to think about models like this. Individuals often engage differently when they have a strong motivation or when they may not have a lot to focus on. Individuals working on this process throughout their journey with the criminal justice system can be more successful upon reentry when they have supports in place. Recovery and reentry can be more successful if the person has been practicing the skills we promote through this process during their incarceration or participation in a treatment court. It’s not fair to expect individuals to jump into life and all the responsibilities and challenges that come with it without practice, support, and tools. These programs walk with the individuals as they learn and transition. As the person wants us to, we engage every step of the way.

You recently participated in the GAINS-sponsored “How Being Trauma-Informed Improves Criminal Justice System Responses” Train-the-Trainer (TTT) event. Why did you want this training, and how will trauma-informed practices be incorporated at CFLR?

We were so thankful to be chosen for this opportunity, and I’d like to express many, many thanks to SAMHSA’s GAINS Center for choosing us. It goes back to looking at that theme of connection and our focus on the criminal justice system. It is essential to look at what breaks or inhibits connection, as trauma is one of the greatest challenges for many families. We look to how we can engage families best and create psychological safety for them to move forward.

Being trauma-informed allowed us to build awareness of what those trauma responses might be when the shifts in the nervous system happen. Not everybody in the system had much training in trauma-informed practices. Attending the trauma training was about increasing awareness of trauma responses and learning how to engage differently. When we can help someone feel safe, it makes the biggest difference in the world. So many of our participants engage when they are in a state of crisis. The crux of coaching is that we treat individuals as experts in their own life.

Trauma-informed practices will be implemented throughout our programs. CFLR is a training hub providing certification credits for those involved in various certifications.

As a member of the New York Certification Board (NYCB) and NYCB trainer registry, along with being a training site for the NYS Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS), we serve as a contributor to the field needs along with being a training and certification hub for peer professionals. We have a peer alliance and peer collaboration where individuals receive weekly training. Our trainees will inevitably work with individuals in the criminal justice system. Thus, trauma-informed practices are always being added to that training curriculum. As an NYCB board member, I also encourage more trainings like this for peer professionals, and this trauma training will be submitted for training certification hours.

We have also discussed implementing yearly trauma training for our treatment court committee members. In Oneida County, New York, we have multiple treatment courts, and our incredible coordinator, Tabatha Sellick, is working to make this a yearly training for the entire team. We will have judges, attorneys, treatment providers, mental health providers, care managers, county representatives, and foster care personnel in attendance. The training is a platform that can help us look at the participants and their families through the same lens. Judge Deep with FTC, has also offered an incredible support to recovery-focused and trauma-informed practices for the families we serve.  This training really supports the shift we have seen in the entire Oneida County treatment court system.

Finally, the trauma training curriculum is a fantastic complement to the Transformation at the Intersect train-the-trainer curriculum. Transformation at the Intersect was developed by the New York State EPICS team (formed in 2017) and OASAS. This training focuses on the criminal justice system and includes incarceration system basics, family tools, protective factors, risk factors, trauma, the impact of incarceration, and fathers as a special population.

With family being a central focus of your work, what are some of your favorite ways to spend time and build a connection with your community–whether that is a close circle of friends or immediate or extended family?

Someone asked recently, what is the best part of being me?  And the answer to that was really simple, and it’s really the people in my life.  I am so beyond blessed to have incredible people who share life with me, make me feel loved, and share both work and fun.  I have an incredible community!  I love to be connected to other people, and experience life with others, which I admit is often a wild contrast to my introverted personality!

I have also been very lucky to find careers in the areas that bring me the most joy and connection. I am a ballroom dancer/teacher; dancing lights my soul on fire. We have an incredible community of ballroom dancers throughout New York State. I am also a photographer, so connecting with someone on the other end of my lens is one of my greatest joys. I love capturing moments that they are experiencing with others. I love to be active; I hike a lot with friends, especially in the Adirondacks. I love being with friends, family, and dogs, whether it is mine or a dog I am fostering.

Also, in the community, I teach a class on substance use and mental health at Utica University. I get to teach recovery and connection as a focus to both protect against and move through the dysfunction caused by substance use, behavior, or mental health challenge. More importantly, my hope is that it changes the way the students engage in their own lives, their careers, and in their families. I’m teaching the practice of connection in relationships and the impact on life as a whole!

I think the foundation of everything is that humans are meant to be connected; when we are, that is the magic of life.

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