THREE POINTS CENTER: First Residential Treatment Center for Adopted Adolescents
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Norm Thiebault, LMFT, Executive Director of Three Points Center, the first and only residential treatment center that focuses solely on the needs of adopted adolescents and their families. For more information go to the website, www.threepointscenter.com.
Why did you decide to open a treatment center for adopted teens?
Early in my career in residential treatment, I found that I was working with an inordinate amount of adopted youth. I was gently challenged by an adoptive parent who asked me to take note of all the adopted youth in residential treatment and in wilderness programs, and to further see what was being done to address their unique and salient issues. My eyes were opened and I sadly realized that we weren’t doing near enough to treat this very worthy and exceptional population. Later on, while pursing my PhD, I conducted my own research and found that adopted youth are seven times more likely to end up in residential treatment than non-adopted youth. This really shook me – I realized that we aren’t doing nearly enough to focus on their needs. I then consulted with Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao, an adoption-author and lecturer at Harvard Medical School whom I deeply respect, and she affirmed the idea that this was something not only needed, but necessary. It confirmed my suspicions and the idea for Three Points Center grew from there.
Do you have any personal experiences in your own family or extended family with adopted individuals?
The kindest and most generous man I know is an adopted person – my father-in-law. His story is the epitome of an adoption success. I also have a sister-in-law who is a birth-mother in an open adoption, and she has done a marvelous job integrating the families to the benefit of her birth-son, as he is very close to the entire family.
What are the strengths of your program and how is your program unique from other RTC’s?
Everything we do is treatment and is through an adopted-person’s paradigm. For example, we do not do points and levels because they can be used as leverage. We believe the only leverage we have is in relationship-building. We are not punitive nor shaming – we use a true Positive-Peer Culture model, which ultimately leads to our students caring about other students and holding each other to a standard. We are heavy in family involvement starting from the first minute. We do not use visits or contact as rewards or as a punishment – weekly Skype sessions with the family happen from the first week, and visits happen every month (when the family can facilitate it). We don’t put restrictions on family contact based on someone’s behavior.
We do a great deal of therapy outside of our offices, either on hikes, or in working at our ranch. Much of the work we do is experiential because many of our students learn better through doing rather than talking.
In addition, we have a group of professionals that we can call upon for guidance that we believe is unmatched in the field. For example, our next Parent Support Conference Call will feature Leslie Pate Mackinnon, LCSW, whom Katie Couric termed “America’s Philomena” and who was featured in the book “The Girls Who Went Away.” She will address our parents and answer their questions live.
Can you summarize what David Brodzinsky’s study for the Donaldson Institute summarized regarding post adoption treatment issues?
Dr. Brodzinsky, who has also been a consultant to our program, found that there are very few “adoption-competent” therapists nationwide. In the report “A Need to Know,” (found here: http://adoptioninstitute.org/publications/a-need-to-know-enhancing-adoption-competence-among-mental-health-professionals/) Dr. Brodzinsky states “For a variety of reasons, mental health professionals typically do not receive the training required to fill adoption-related counseling needs and, too often, either do not fully understand why such training is necessary or mistakenly believe the knowledge they already have is sufficient” (August, 2013, p. 5). Further, his study found that “Some respondents reported experiences with therapists that actually damaged their families. Areas in which therapists were viewed as especially insensitive or lacking in adoption knowledge included attachment, trauma, loss and use of appropriate language” (p. 5).
What is your opinion in terms of transporting adopted teens to programs?
We believe transporting adopted teens to programs must be the last resort chosen. We strongly recommend the family coming with the student and staying a day or two to become familiar with us and our program, and to send the message to the student that he or she is not the “identified problem.” In cases where this is not feasible or safe, then we, ourselves, will go to the home and work with the youth and family to transport the child safely to our facility – we do not wish this to be turned over to strangers, no matter how competent they may be. We believe treatment begins at first contact and we want to be the first contact because everything we do is built on that relationship.
What specific treatment modalities have you chosen to deal with the attachment issues that adopted individuals face?
We use a variety of modalities – from simply understanding why adopted youth may do certain things (like hoarding items) and working with that paradigm, to more clinically sophisticated approaches such as Attachment-Focused Family Therapy, Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy, Lifespan Integration, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and others. We also emphasize experiential processes such as Wilderness Hikes, weekly Equine Therapy, and working with our animals at our ranch.
How is your program different from a behavioral approach?
We are far less concerned with behaviors than we are with connection. Adopted students who are subject to behavior-focused treatment take much longer to complete and have higher relapse rates because it’s not about connecting – it’s about controlling the student. We’d rather change come from within rather than from rules that are externally imposed.
We like the phrase “Connection before Correction” as it sums up our philosophy. While we may not approve of behaviors that our students demonstrate, we will always seek to align with the motivation behind their behaviors, to help them understand why they do what they do, and how it impacts their relationships, so that they can modify those behaviors. When they see that we are safe to trust and that we align with their motivations, if not their behaviors, then we believe lasting change can happen.
Do you have levels or phases that the residents progress through?
No we do not – we believe that levels or phases are contraindicated for our students.
Describe the qualifications and specialized training of your staff?
Each of our clinical staff are Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, adhering to the most rigorous family therapy training requirements in the field. Dr. Thibault, the Executive Director is an Approved Supervisor and Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Thane Palmer, MS, is also a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (in addition to being the adoptive father of four children). All clinicians at Three Points Center are in the process of becoming certified in Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy under the guidance of Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman, with whom we have weekly consultations. Further, Three Points Center is in the process of becoming a Certified Attachment-Focused Organization, indicating significant levels of training for our clinicians and staff.
What is the ratio of staff to resident?
We have a minimum of one staff for every four students.
How often do the residents have therapy, individual and group?
Students have individual therapy, Equine therapy, and family Skype sessions every week. They have group therapy at least four times weekly.
What happens if a student tries to run?
We haven’t yet had a student try to run but of course it may happen. In that case, we will first try to find the student, notify parents, and notify our local law enforcement. They are familiar with us and we’ve had them come to our facility. We firmly believe that the best prevention for anyone wanting to run from our facility is simply forming caring and safe relationships. When our students know that we care and that we are sincere in seeking to help them, the need to run fades away.
What is your total capacity?
We are licensed for 40 boys and 40 girls but that is only because of the size of our facility. Ideally, we’d have two groups of nine students of each gender, for a total of 36 students in our facility. If we grew beyond that, we would rather open up a new campus for the other students.
What grade/age levels do you accept?
We can accept students from age 12 through 17 and all grade levels. A 17-year-old can remain past his or her birthday provided they are working towards high school graduation.
What is the average length of stay?
We anticipate about one year – the current average for adopted youth in residential treatment is about 1.5 years. We would like to see that shorter.
What is the class size and supports in the classroom?
Currently, there are six students per classroom (divided by gender). The curriculum is online and there are both online and in-class teachers.
What is the licensure and accreditation of school?
Our academic arm, Three Points Academy, is fully licensed and regionally accredited through Alta Independent, with whom we have contracted for our curriculum.
What are the daily hours of instruction?
Scheduled Tues – Fri for six hours a day, but with our need for flexibility, students more typically are instructed three to four hours daily.
What are the School Administrator’s credentials?
Our school instructors are certified to teach in Utah, and a number have special education certifications as well. Our on-grounds Headmaster is Lindsey V. Smith-Mills, who has her Bachelor’s Degree, majoring in Special Education and Teaching with a minor in Secondary Education. She served as a High School Special Education Teacher in the Clark County (Las Vegas) Nevada School District for a number of years. Our online Headmaster is Brian Fauver. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology Teaching and History from BYU, a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from BYU with an administrative license as well as an Educational Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership from Walden University. Each of our clinical staff are licensed Marriage and Family Therapists in Utah.
What is the method of instruction (direct instruction versus independent study)?
Both – the students work at his or her own pace, with an online curriculum and faculty, but also have a teacher in the classroom. We can provide texts when needed, along with the benefits of video, audio, and in-person instruction.
How many of your students are special education students on IEP’s, on average?
Approximately 1/3 of our students have IEP’s.
What is the curriculum used in classrooms. (Name)?
We operate on a platform that allows us to deliver curriculum from any source and we use 3 or 4 different curriculum sources for our students. Our primary curriculum is obtained from Edgenuity. They are a well-respected and highly-used curriculum for secondary (K-12) schools and we are comfortable with most of their courses. We reach out to some other math and science sources and use those courses in circumstances where we recognize student advantage in doing so.
How do you involve the family in the treatment program with weekly family therapy, weekend workshops?
We invite the family to participate in weekly Skype sessions, monthly Parent Support Conference calls, monthly visits on-site, and quarterly Family Weekends.
How do you work with the family to develop a transition plan?
We ask the family at home to work with their local (hopefully adoption-competent!) therapist while we work with the student. Then, when it is time to start looking at returning home, we schedule home visits and ask that the student begin a relationship with the therapist at home by seeing that therapist when home visits take place. In addition, we offer post-graduation support through continued Skype family sessions and returning to the facility as alumni. We ask that our graduates continue service as an advisory board to assist us in making Three Points Center the most effective facility available for our students and their families.