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April 2011 Caseworker of the Month
Melanie Prepetit, a clinical supervisor for the nonprofit agency Beech Brook in Cleveland, Ohio, is our April Caseworker of the Month. In addition to helping two brothers learn to deal with the twists and turns of life over the course of a 10-year relationship as their therapist, she assisted the boys' adoptive parents in strengthening their family by turning crisis moments into an opportunity for reinforcing the bonds of love and trust.
The bonds of love and trust
When a child acts out and a parent gets angry, most children understand that their mom or dad is just that, angry, and they harbor no doubts that they are loved and safe. However, for children who are adopted, who may have experienced abuse early on, a parent getting upset takes on new shades of complexity when a child does something wrong.
"With what happened to them in their early years, they don't trust me, I'm the enemy, just the replacement for the other person who hurt them," said John Chapman, 60, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who nominated Prepetit for the award.
"A kid is learning constantly how to trust another human being, how to love another human being. If they don't get those experiences in the first years of life, what are their other relationships going to be?" Chapman said.
For the past 10 years, Prepetit has taught Mark, 17, and Monty, 15, strategies for dealing with trauma. John Chapman and his wife Patricia adopted Mark and Monty at ages five and seven after the close-knit brothers had experienced neglect and emotional and physical abuse.
Prepetit said consequences for rule violations must be consistent, but also compassionate.
"Because of early trauma, it always goes back to trust that they have of the world in general," she said, noting it is important to reinforce both the household's standards of conduct, and that it was Mark and Monthy’s home as well.
"It’s about helping them realize the family is always going to be there for them," Prepetit said.
John Chapman gives Prepetit credit for not only helping his sons learn to recognize triggers and plan strategies emphasizing respect and responsibility, but also for being available to help him with strategies for responding to egregious rule infractions.
For children with trauma in their pasts, sometimes when a rule is broken, it can be more complicated for a parent than simply correcting the behavior, Chapman said. When one of the boys acts out and breaks a big rule that demands a swift and sure response, the Chapmans have sought Prepetit's advice and learned to use the crisis as an opportunity for reinforcing the bonds of love and trust.
"Are my actions going to demonstrate to them that I am trustworthy, that I love them and care for them?" John Chapman said. "Am I treating them in a respectful and responsible way? By doing those things, I pull them closer to me, and we build a stronger relationship through adversity. And that is what Melanie has taught me."
When Prepetit heard she had been nominated as AdoptUSKids April Caseworker of the Month, she said she was a little embarrassed at being singled out, but pleasantly surprised.
A passion for social work
Prepetit discovered her passion for helping when she was a Girl Scout growing up in Burton, Ohio.
"That's really where it originated from," she said.
Prepetit received the Girl Scout Gold Award in 1986, the highest achievement in the Girl Scouts, for a community service project of renovating the interior of the Girl Scout Lodge in Middlefield, Ohio. She raised money to buy materials and recruited volunteers to do the work.
However, Prepetit didn't realize her calling would be in social services until after she arrived at college. At first, she studied international business and finance, but wasn't satisfied.
"I realized I wasn't doing what I wanted to be doing," she said, so she switched her focus.
"It seemed to fit," she said. "I've always been kind of a helper, people always tell me things."
She graduated from Bowling Green State University with a degree in social work, and earned a Master of Science in social administration from Case Western Reserve University.
She started her career in Toledo, Ohio, in 1993 at the Family and Child Abuse Prevention Center as a sexual abuse prevention program coordinator. She then worked at the now-shuttered New Connecting Point in Toledo from 1995 to 2000 before starting with Beech Brook in Cleveland.
Now a clinical supervisor, she has a team of therapists working for her, each with a caseload of 20 to 25 kids.
She finds the role, which includes helping therapists problem solve, allows her to have a greater impact, she said.
Mark and Monty are still her clients remaining from her days as a full-time therapist. The duration of their relationship has benefited their development, she said. However, she noted she has also enjoyed watching them grow up to be wise and insightful beyond their years.
"You start out and they are little, they were little boys," she said. "Now they are men."
The importance of post-adoptive services
The Chapmans aren't new at parenting. They have four biological children — John Jr., 39, Jenifer, 32, Julie, 26, and James, 23 — and four other adopted children beside Mark and Monty -- Bill, 26, Blake, 25, Jack, 21, and Alex, 13.
Because the trauma in their past, the adopted children have seen therapists. However, none have had the decade-long relationship with a therapist that Mark and Monty have had.
Having a familiar, trusted person has definitely been a blessing, Chapman said. "It has helped a tremendous amount."
Part of Prepetit's effectiveness is her ability to challenge a person on how they’re reasoning in a way that doesn't make them defensive, John Chapman said.
"She has a very unique way of doing it," he said. "It's an art, not a science. I can't plow it out in a formula; it's not an arithmetic problem. It's truly a work of art. When I see it happening, I say, 'Wow, that's really cool.'"
Prepetit laughed when she heard Chapman's description of her style in confronting somebody with something they may not want to hear, but said it does take work.
"Anytime you’re calling anyone out on the carpet, you have to be compassionate and you have to be genuine," she said. "Otherwise a kid will know you are being just plain nasty."