University City

University City: Counseling works to keep families close

The more Dona M. Patterson worked with families, the more she realized that an office wasn't always the best place for counseling them.

Families often were on their best behavior there, making it difficult for therapists to gauge what was really going on. So Patterson started visiting families in their homes.

"If you're working on a family's turf, you get to see the real dynamics of the family," she said. "You see all of the inner workings."

Patterson is a licensed family and marriage therapist who has worked in public schools and with the Mecklenburg County court system. In 1982, she started the nonprofit agency Family Outreach and Counseling Center, which provides nontraditional in-home counseling and office visits.

"I think you can do good service in the office, but you remove some of the barriers if you're in the home also," Patterson said.

With the guidance of a mentor, former Lincoln Heights Elementary School Principal O.N. Freeman, Patterson developed the nonprofit counseling center and worked with Mecklenburg County and the court system for referrals.

Now Patterson staffs the counseling center during the day, and her part-time staff of licensed therapists work in the evenings visiting families.

Counseling can involve one client or a whole family.

Specialty programs focus on bettering communication between at-risk youth and their families and helping families with life skills, problem-solving and setting goals.

The agency also offers a program called Responsible Fatherhood, which helps noncustodial parents increase and enhance visitation with their children.

The program helps fathers work out custody agreements and teaches them good parenting skills and how to develop a better relationship with their children. Patterson stresses that they don't want "Disneyland dads" who only focus on having fun during visitation with their children.

"They have to do some work, too," she said. That means calling children during the week, helping with homework and being available to help if the child is sick.

The center, which has worked with hundreds of families, also uses donated tickets to promote family activities, taking groups of fathers and children to such events as basketball games and the circus.

Responsible Fatherhood lost funding several years ago, but Patterson said the FOCC now uses interns to continue it. She has seen great progress in fathers over the years, including some who later help other fathers in the program.

"The bonding with the child seems to strengthen," Patterson said.

"The fathers become more involved with the child."