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Patience, empathy, and a desire to prevent crises

Kimberly Conley worked as a victim witness advocate for the Middlesex district attorney’s office, helping victims of domestic assault, before turning to family therapy.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston GLobe

Kimberly Conley worked as a victim witness advocate for the Middlesex district attorney’s office, helping victims of domestic assault, before turning to family therapy.

Kimberly ConleY worked as a victim witness advocate for the Middlesex district attorney’s office, helping victims of domestic assault. But after five years of helping people get restraining orders and services such as shelter, she was ready for a change.

She wanted to help women, children, and families avoid the kinds of crises that led them — sometimes repeatedly — to court and the victim witness program.

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Conley decided to go into family therapy, a field in which she could use the skills she developed with the DA’s office, including conflict resolution, empathy, and patience. Marriage and family therapy is projected as one of the fastest growing occupations, with jobs in the field expected to increase 46 percent by 2020, compared to 13 percent for all jobs, according to the Labor Department.

The average wage for marriage and family therapists was just over $49,000 in 2012.

Conley’s route into family therapy was a master’s degree program at the University of Massachusetts Boston that took her three years to complete, going to school part time. It’s the only program in Massachusetts accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education, a professional association in Alexandria, Va.

Other New England schools with accredited programs include Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H.; University of New Hampshire in Durham; and University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn. All programs are graduate or post graduate.

Students in the UMass program take graduate level courses such as Introduction to Family Therapy, Therapy with Couples, and Substance Abuse in the Family.

Graduates are eligible to be licensed as marriage and family therapists in Massachusetts after completing about two years of post-graduate work under the supervision of a licensed therapist.

Conley continued as a victim witness advocate while she took classes. She had first thought of starting a private practice, but ultimately took a job in 2005 as an entry-level therapist with The Guidance Center in Somerville, a service of Riverside Community Care, a nonprofit organization that delivers mental health services to children and their families.

The job, which entailed home visits to parents whose children had been removed by the state, allowed her to put into practice skills she developed in both the DA’s office and the classroom.

Conley learned to be sensitive to a family’s culture (for instance, taking off shoes before entering an Asian family’s home) and deal with practical matters, such as getting food on the table before addressing mental health issues. A family with a troubled teenager might need a therapist to understand the hardships the parents were facing.

“What you learn in class is what you should be doing,” said Conley, 41, of Winchester. “In the real world where people are crying, angry, and yelling, you need to be mindful of your own tone of voice, validate their feelings, and slow down yourself.”

Gonzalo Bacigalupe, director of the UMass Boston family therapy program, says applicants tend to fall into two groups: recent college graduates who have worked in settings such as rape crisis centers, women’s shelters, and residential schools, and career changers from fields such as business, education, and health care.

Marriage and family therapists can work in social service agencies, schools, or businesses, where they counsel employees. Some go into private practice, but it typically takes about 10 years to build a successful practice.

While marriage and family therapists often work with psychologists and social workers, they focus on helping the unit rather than individuals. Typically, the therapist works with families to set goals such as keeping disagreements civil. Marriage and family therapy requires a high degree of empathy, patience, and collaboration.

“It can be scary to deal with so many players,” Bacigalupe says. “You have to have analytic capacities, like people, and get energy from interacting with them. If you’re bothered by problems, it’s best not to get into this.”

Conley majored in psychology at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt. As a victim witness advocate, she learned to communicate with clients under duress, helping them get services and prepare for court.

Conley has moved up that ladder the Guidance Center, where she now works as a program director who not only supervises team leaders and clinical staff, but also develops and implements staff training.

She said she has received great satisfaction in seeing troubled families stabilize, addressing problems without violence or abuse.

“I’ve gotten to see things through in a way that’s more satisfying [than working the DA’s office],” she said. “It’s more prevention. It’s more my own value system.”

Joan Axelrod-Contrada can be reached at joanaxelrodcontrada@gmail.com.
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