by Alison Bell
Marcy Ireland was in a crisis.
Her son James, eight, was out of control. Prone to extreme mood shifts and aggression, he would lash out at his family verbally and physically.
“When something upset him, he couldn’t control his emotions,” remembers Ireland. “If there was a knife on the table, he would use it. He would throw rocks at my other children and say he was going to kill them. If we were driving on the freeway, he’d try to jump out of the car.”
Ireland was devastated because she knew that underneath the destructive behavior was a sweet, beautiful boy. Yet, at the same time, James was terrorizing her and her husband and their other children, ages 6, 8, and 14.
She and her husband tried to do what they could. “We went to every therapist, every psychiatrist -- the best in the country -- to get James the help he needed, but nothing worked,” she says.
Ireland was wrestling with a do-or-die choice: “Do we try to save our other three other kids or do we let the whole ship sink down with James?”
Ultimately, she decided there had to be a way to save all of them.
She began researching residential treatment centers in the Los Angeles area that might benefit James. She discovered Hillsides, and was immediately interested. While Hillsides mainly serves children in the foster care system, its intensive therapeutic program based on a caring routine of therapy and behavior modification appealed to her.
“We went out to visit, and I cried all the way,” she says. “But as soon as I got there, I relaxed. The place was so amazing and peaceful, and when I heard how the program was run, I knew this was the place for James.”
The Hillsides staff assessed James and decided, along with Ireland, that James would best be served if they aimed for a two-year stay. She enrolled him in the residential program and Hillsides therapeutic school, Hillsides Education Center, which shares the Pasadena campus with residential services.
Now, with the two years almost up, Ireland says it was the best decision she ever made.
“My whole family was being destroyed, and Hillsides put us back together,” she says.
At Hillsides, James learned coping skills for when his emotions got out of control, such as removing himself from the stimuli that was causing stress and talking about his feelings instead of acting them out.
He also gained new self-awareness.
“James is such a sensitive soul. At his core, he wants to please people and have peace and harmony around him,” says his therapist, Michael Rodriguez. He helped James see that his destructive thoughts didn’t define him, but rather, they were a part of himself he needed to work on. He also counseled James to “show himself some grace, and realize it’s okay to make mistakes.”
As part of the treatment plan, Rodriguez and Leda Hernandez, a therapeutic behavioral specialist at Hillsides, made supervised home visits with James.
“We don’t just treat the client, we treat the family,” says Rodriguez. “It was important to work with his family so they could get a better understanding of who James is and for James to get a better understanding of how to work in the family system.”
Through Hillsides-led family therapy sessions, James’ siblings were able to work through their feelings toward James. And Ireland learned that her previous parenting style, instead of helping James, was actually fueling the problem.
“In desperation I got to the point where it was easier to keep the peace by giving into every one of James’ meltdowns," she says. “Hillsides taught me to be strict in a healthy way that was best for James and the entire family. I’m a better parent now not just for James but for all my kids.”
As James was getting control of his behavior and working out issues with his family, he was also receiving individualized attention at Hillsides Education Center, where classrooms have a ratio of three to four staff per 12 students.
James initially put forth minimal effort in the classroom, but within a short time, vastly improved his academic skills and won student of the month almost every month. His teacher Debi Szilagi-Johnson credits James success with the school’s unique “GROWTH” program that focuses on personal and social awareness, problem-solving, and tenacity and the school’s intensive reading program, Reading Rocks.
Another area James has excelled in at Hillsides is sports. A natural athlete, he quickly became one of the stars of the Hillsides basketball team, earning the nickname, “Big Game James.” His therapists used James athleticism to help build up his confidence and identity. And while James had struggled with bad sportsmanship on previous teams, at Hillsides, this behavior became a thing of the past.
With all the success James has experienced in several arenas over the last two years, he’s become a different person.
“His beautiful side is back,” says Ireland.
James, now 10, is returning home this summer. Hillsides therapists will continue to visit the family for follow up “wrap around” services to ensure that James and the family stay on track.
Rodriquez and Hernandez are confident they will.
“James has learned to regulate his emotions and is now comfortable in his own skin while his family was willing to learn cues and triggers to help James through his emotions, eventually building a stronger family bond,” says Hernandez. “It’s been so rewarding to see him and his family grow.”
As for Ireland, these past two years fill her with only one emotion: gratitude.
“It was so hard to make this choice, but I thank God we did,” she says. “James likes where he is in life, and will never go back to where he was. He is going to do something special with his life, and I credit this to Hillsides.”