By Carolyn Gruber
In the middle of the last century, I learned psychoanalytic theory and psychotherapy skills at the Smith College School for Social Work. At the same time, I was introduced to two social work principles which have stood the test of time. The first was “start where the client is.” The other was the concept of “person in environment.” I returned to contemplating those principles when I served on the board of The House of Ruth. The attention to providing environmental services while also providing psychotherapy and building relationships with staff members and case managers is vital to providing the kind of holding environment that leads to healing and growth following trauma.
House of Ruth’s mission is to empower women, children and families to rebuild their lives and heal from trauma, abuse and homelessness. The agency provides a continuum of services which include enriched housing for families and single women; trauma informed daycare for children, and free counseling to empower anyone regardless of gender, who is a survivor of trauma and abuse. The programs provide individualized support to rebuild safe, independent, and sustainable lives.
The agency began as a shelter for victims of domestic violence. But one size never fits all. More and more wrap around services were identified and implemented. Now the agency provides services for mental health, substance abuse, therapeutic day care, job training, financial management and safe and stable housing. Think of it as supportive therapy on steroids. It employs environmental, educational, group and individual modalities.
While on the board I served as chair of the program committee. I was able to have a close-up acquaintance with each of the programs. AT the facility for single women, I could observe the defenses the women used to protect themselves from the horrors of their traumas and losses. I watched as the staff gently wooed them into positive relationships. And I had to face reality as we dealt with an invasion of bedbugs.
At the facilities for families, I could observe how apartments were furnished to make them both literally and psychologically safe. And how important bus routes are for education and employment.
“Kidspace” is the therapeutic day care center. It reminded me of the therapeutic nursery schools that psychoanalytic centers once developed and observed. Reg Lurie and Selma Fraiberg would have been right at home. The director of that program is well versed in developmental theory. The staff makes good use drop off and pick up periods with the parents to promote and teach healthy parenting. They address the ghosts in the nursery.
The counseling center provides trauma informed psychotherapy. I had been teaching in the doctoral program at Smith while I was on the board. Discussions about PTSD and treatment thereof were similar in both places. At Smith there was an emphasis on incorporating object relations and relational approaches in that endeavor. While the therapists at the center do not discuss theory as much, it is clear that they listen very well and have a full supply of empathy.
It takes more than fine programs to keep such an enterprise afloat. That is where a group of people with diverse aptitudes and experiences is so helpful. We had people on the board who were fluent in financial reports, personnel policies, and fund raising. We had lawyers. House of Ruth owns and manages a lot of real estate. And we had real estate people on the board as well. There were a few crises at the beginning of my tenure. Board members came together in a professional manner to meet the challenges. We hired a new director who proved remarkably talented at healing the situation. This led to the hiring of a development director and a financial director who became asters of their positions. Both the staff and the board are made up of diverse individuals who reflect the population of our city.
When I converted to Judaism, I was given the Hebrew name of Ruth. How fitting it was for me to have a sojourn in this lovely house.
After graduating from Catholic University, I inquired where people went to get the best training in psychodynamic/psychoanalytic theory and practice. The Washington School of Psychiatry and the DC Institute for Mental Hygiene were named repeatedly.
I knew nothing about the Institute’s stellar history when I began working in one of the three branches of what was typically called DCIMH. I am only now fully aware of its incredible backstory. Dr. Harold Eist was appointed the Medical Director of the tiny Institute in 1969 with a handful of staff members seeing less than a total of twenty patients. Harold was the genius behind creating the Institute’s mission which set it apart from all other community mental health centers. The mission was two-fold: first, to provide the same kind of quality mental health care to the poor that the affluent could receive; and second, to offer the best psychoanalytic training to volunteers so that they would flock to the Institute, gladly trading their time and service for the opportunity to learn psychoanalytic theory and practice treating this population. This mission drove its success.