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W&M counseling students help local families reach new horizons

New Horizons (From left) Professors Rip McAdams and Victoria Foster and doctoral students Keosha Branch and Becky Sheffield lead the New Horizons Family Counseling Center. Photo by Justin ThomasWhen Peninsula families with school-age children are struggling with academic, behavioral and other issues, they often find support and guidance from the New Horizons Family Counseling Center.

The New Horizons Family Counseling Center, based in the William & Mary School of Education, offers free family counseling provided by advanced master’s and doctoral-level students under the supervision of licensed William & Mary faculty. More than three decades since its founding, the center now serves 250-300 families per year at locations across the area, offering area families access to family counseling that they would not be able to access or afford otherwise.

“What we want to do is assist the families in developing the skills and abilities to promote their own health,” said Professor of Counselor Education Victoria Foster, faculty co-director of the center. “It’s a very collaborative process among our counselors, the families and the schools, and we’ve had some wonderful success stories.”

Partnering with families and schools

The service was originally created under the leadership of W&M Counseling Professor Fred Adair as the Peninsula Area Cooperative Education Services (PACES) Family Counseling Center. The program had been in place for about seven years and was serving around 50 families per year in Williamsburg and Newport News when Foster took the reins in 1992. Soon thereafter the PACES program was integrated into the New Horizons Educational Center, the administrative body of a consortium of multiple school districts, and it was renamed the New Horizons Family Counseling Center. This reorganization resulted in additional funding for the family counseling center, allowing it to expand.

Substantial expansion led to a need for additional leadership, and Foster was joined by Rip McAdams as co-director in 1995. Today, the New Horizons Family Counseling Center has partnerships with six public-school districts – Gloucester, York County, Newport News, Poquoson, York County and Williamsburg/James City County – as well as a clinical service agreement with New Kent County schools.

Doctoral and master’s level intern family counselors provide family counseling sessions on location in all of those areas as well as in the center’s William & Mary location throughout the year, including the summer. In addition to family-counseling sessions, the center also hosts groups in the evenings for parents and children in need of specialized clinical services. The family counselors work with families to determine the length of counseling, but most clients are seen for a period of about 12 weeks before being reevaluated.

“Many people think of therapy as something that’s long-term, but some of the strongest outcomes are from short-term intervention, and we work very hard to be engaged in best practices and to be accountable to our clients, because they are honoring us by coming to us for our service,” said Foster.

Most of the families come to the New Horizons Family Counseling Center as the result of referrals from school counselors or other administrators, but families may also self-refer. The reasons for referral run the gamut from family communication, school discipline and social issues to depression, substance abuse and divorce. The children range from elementary to high-school students, and the family configurations are as varied as the issues they are dealing with. Some are traditional, nuclear family units, while others are blended families or families headed by single parents, grandparents or other family members. No matter the family makeup, the counselors encourage all family members – as well as any adults who might have input on parenting – to be present for the counseling sessions, and the center has worked to provide language interpretation services when needed.

“Everybody in the family is often contributing to the family’s problems, so we try to work with everybody in the family to address the problems,” said Foster.

Learning lab for counseling students

The counselors at the New Horizons Family Counseling Center are master’s and doctoral degree students in the W&M School of Education’s counselor education program. Currently, the counseling staff includes 11 doctoral students who are taking a cognate (specialty) in family counseling and eight family-counseling students at the master’s level.

“William & Mary attracts really fine students, so this makes for a very fine program,” said Foster.

Two students who graduated from the master’s program, practiced in the community and then returned to W&M to pursue their doctorates are now helping lead the center as student directors: Keosha Branch and Becky Sheffield. They are responsible for all of the day-to-day administrative duties associated with the center, including maintaining its relationships with school districts, as well as supervision of the master’s student counselors. They report that the opportunity to work in New Horizons is what sets W&M’s graduate counselor program apart from others.

“I think there is training that we are able to provide for our master’s students that is just unparalleled,” said Sheffield, adding that the center’s state-of-the-art technology – such as earpieces that allow the supervisors to talk with counselors while observing them during sessions – enhances that training.

“Our master’s program has a marriage and family specialization, and all of our students in that specialization do their internship at the center, so they get family counseling experience right from the start,” said Branch. “That kind of experience is really hard to find out in the community, so I think that being able to have the experience of a 600-hour internship where you’re strictly doing family counseling is invaluable.”

Working in the New Horizons Family Counseling Center gives students a chance to partially or fully complete the clinical practice requirements to become both licensed professional counselors and licensed marriage and family therapists, said Foster.

Additionally, the student counselors have the chance to do research related to family counseling, and a number of doctoral dissertations and journal publications have emerged from that research. For example, Branch and Sheffield were recently involved in research conducted at the center examining whether the primary clinical approach the clinic uses – structural family therapy – remains viable for 21st century demands, and they confirmed that it is. In December, a previous research team from the center published a paper in the Journal of Family Psychotherapy about the reasons families come back to counseling.

“The previous literature had reported reasons why families stopped coming to counseling after a single session,” said Branch. “So what our team was looking for was what causes them to come back for that second session. They found that clients were most likely to come back when they felt that the family counselor had the skills and conveyed the confidence that they would be able to find a resolution to their problem.”

Branch and Sheffield said that working as center directors has given them leadership experience that will serve them well whatever they do post-doctorate.

“I think it gives us a wonderful edge when it comes to the experience that’s going to get us the academic and/or clinical positions we seek when we graduate, so I think it’s a huge benefit to be a part of the clinic leadership,” said Sheffield.
Although the clinic gives students invaluable leadership, clinical and research experience, the primary focus of the students and faculty alike is always on serving the families, said Foster.

“First and foremost, our obligation is to the schools and families,” she said.

Meeting the need

After nearly two-and-a-half decades of working with families and students at New Horizons, Foster thinks the clinic is stronger than ever. She said that the challenge now is just to keep up with the need, adding that the center often has a waiting list for families. Meeting that challenge includes finding funding sources in addition to what is provided by the school districts, such as grants from the Williamsburg Health Foundation.

Although the job has been tough at times, co-directors Foster and McAdams both report that they love working with scores of student counselors as they’ve strived to help support families across the region.

“It was really hard work, but it brings great joy and pleasure,” Foster said. “We think it’s an extraordinary program.”