Working with Displaced Families: A Clinical Therapist’s Perspective

Tomanika Witherspoon has devoted her professional life to helping a wide variety of people in need—including teens and displaced families—as a licensed clinical therapist. Not only does she work at a residential treatment facility for adolescent girls, she’s also the CEO of her own unique private practice, Growing Counseling Services, which provides home-based therapy to clients.

MSW Working with Displaced Families

In 2004, Witherspoon earned her Bachelor of Social Work from Ferris State University, and after graduating she began working at a residential treatment facility, providing direct care services. In this position, she gained a lot of experience interacting with clients on a long-term basis, and it inspired her to attend Wayne State University to earn her Masters of Social Work.

Witherspoon has a full clinical license, which allows her to provide clinical services—including individual, family and group therapy—independently through her practice. In addition to providing counseling services, Tomanika also facilitates training and workshops on a variety of topics, including sexual abuse education, prevention methods and treatment options.

Enjoy our full interview to get Tomanika Witherspoon’s perspective on working with adolescents and displaced families and the challenges of social work.

GradSchools: What defines a displaced family?

When I think of a displaced family, I think of a family who may have been separated legally (through Children Protective Services) or due to housing concerns.

GradSchools: What types of challenges have you personally seen displaced families face?

Some of the challenges are related to lack of education, employment, transportation, and child care barriers. There have been countless cases in which I’ve attempted to encourage a person to obtain employment so that they can properly care for their family. One issue that may arise is the fact that they have no one to care for their children while at work. If you address the child care issue, they may not be able to get to work due to not having transportation. I may then encourage a person to obtain a better job so that their income can be increased to meet more of their needs (i.e. by obtaining a car). Some people may not be able to obtain a better job due to the lack of education—specifically not having a high school diploma or GED.  And completing a GED program is a real challenge for people who are not able to read and barely write. These are some of the many challenges faced when working with displaced families.

GradSchools: What role do social workers play in assisting displaced families?

Social workers provide services, and/or referrals for services, in an attempt to reunite or stabilize families. Social workers may provide employment leads, refer families to mental health services, parenting classes or whatever additional help may be needed to reunite a family.

GradSchools: Do you need to be a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) to work with displaced families?

No, you can provide services with bachelor-level degree, but an MSW is needed to provide clinical services, such as individual and family therapy1.

GradSchools: What led you to start a home-based therapy business—and how does it help the population(s) you serve?

I started my home-based business to provide convenience to those who need mental health services, but often encounter many barriers to accessing care. While working as an Intake Clinician in the past, I would often explore what led clients to discontinue services. I would find that transportation was a major barrier. Some of the other barriers were related to not having time, a babysitter, and other conflicting responsibilities. I decided to do home-based counseling practice to address these challenges to accessing therapy.  

GradSchools: What is a typical day like for you on the job?

A typical day for me is pretty hectic, especially because I’m currently juggling maintaining full-time employment, as well as my private practice. I typically see a client through my private practice prior to going to work at the residential facility. When I arrive, I check my emails and voicemails and respond to them. Oftentimes, there’s some sort of case management associated. I’m coordinating things with the psychiatrist, case worker, nurse, and educational staff—and I try to meet with approximately three to four clients each day. I’m also completing court reports, documenting contacts related to the cases and completing case notes.  If there are certain crises that arise, I may assist in trying to verbally de-escalate youth, which may sometimes require non-violent physical intervention.  In addition, I attend various meetings related to my cases and management issues. In between time, I may be emailing my private practice staff regarding various matters and responding to emails, phone calls and text messages. After I leave the residential treatment facility, I typically visit with at least two clients. Then the next day I start all over again!

GradSchools: What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your work?

One of the most challenging things about my job is working with children and adolescents, seeing their progress, and then knowing that they are returning home to dysfunctional families where there is no structure or guidance. This often causes the youth to regress and become “products of their environments”. The most rewarding aspect of my job is seeing people accomplish their goals or things they thought they could not do. I recently witnessed three of my previous clients graduate from high school; this was a HUGE accomplishment given their backgrounds.

GradSchools: You work a lot with adolescent girls. Are there any particular issues that you feel are becoming more prevalent? If so, why?

I’ve noticed issues that relates to sexuality and prescription drug use. I believe that this may be highly related media-influence—and music in particular. Sexual acts amongst young women and getting high off “Xanax and Molly’s” are things that are often glorified in media and pop culture. Teens feel that is the cool thing to do and like the attention associated with it.

GradSchools: When you were earning your Masters of Social Work (MSW), were there any particular courses or topics that drew you down your current career path?

My concentration revolved around family systems, so most of my core classes drew me toward working with families and individuals.

GradSchools: Are there certain traits or qualities that you think make a person well suited to working in your specialization?

I feel that a person in this field must be empathetic and patient, have a sympathetic manner, and a willingness to help others.

GradSchools: In your opinion, is this a good time to enter the field of social work? Why or why not?

In my opinion, it truly depends on what you want to do in the field, and whether or not you will have to take out any loans. It is important to know that this is not a high paying field, especially if you don’t have a MSW.

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