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Innovation Excellence: How Meta House uses play therapy to help families in recovery

2021 EWM Award for Innovation Excellence

Eileen Sperl didn’t invent child-centered play therapy, but she brought the discipline, also known as filial therapy, to a whole new level at Meta House, a treatment program for women with co-concurring substance abuse and behavioral health disorders. 

In 2021, Sperl, director of child & family services at Meta House in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, won the Evelyn Wright Moore Award for Innovation Excellence. Wipli’s annual innovation award is named for Evelyn Wright Moore, who attended every Wipfli National Training Conference for 17 years until her passing in 2017. She was President and CEO of Brazoria County Head Start Early Learning School in Angleton, Texas, and a lifelong champion of innovation, learning and community service.  

The award recognizes nonprofit leaders for their forward thinking and creativity in making a difference for their organization and their community. As part of this distinction, Meta House received a $5,000 donation to honor Evelyn’s memory and carry on her spirit of innovation.

“The award has helped us to continue to provide the services we know have high-impact for parents and children,” said Sperl, who has a background in clinical social work.With a focus on the interests of the family, the evidence‐based curriculum has become a best practice in the field. Sperl has continued to evolve and adapt its filial therapy program focused on the developmental needs of children and the parent-child relationship since she arrived at Meta House 19 years ago.

Eileen Sperl 

The power of filial therapy

Filial therapy goes beyond the standard approaches to improving parenting and day-to-day living skills. “When you look at the lengthy trauma that children have experienced when their parents are suffering with substance abuse disorder, it has become clear that the strongest healers of child trauma are parents and caregivers if they are given the tools and have the support to address their own traumas,” Sperl said.

Their focus is teaching parents and caregivers to do child-centered play therapy with children.  Therapists function as parent coaches, providing side-by-side support to strengthen their ability to be more reflective and understanding of their emotional health and developmental needs.  

The efforts to improve relationships between parents and children prove to be an important component in supporting their overall recovery.

Parents initially attend a parent skills group involving discussions, role-playing and videos and more. Knowing that people come in with varying strengths, Meta House staff adjust to work with each client where they’re at in their family relationships.

Sperl has had to modify her original 16-week residential curriculum, transforming it into a 12-week model because funding cuts have led to shorter residential stays. Clients start with a four-week introductory program and additional outpatient programing is included depending on the time that clients will be with the program.

While filial therapy works best for children between the ages of 2 and 12, Sperl has adapted the curriculum to work all ages, from newborns to teens and adult children. 

The centerpiece of her work is following the child's lead, “being able to identify feelings, and reflect feelings, wishes and needs. We work on developing empathic understanding skills in parents,” she said. “Through those reflective or empathic skills, which really are listening skills, they’re learning to pay attention and focus on a person 100%, which can be used with anyone.”

The therapy is less about the rules of any game being played or proper use of a toy as it is the interplay between children and their parents or care givers.

In 2020, Meta House served nearly 400 women and 155 children, about half of whom are involved in the child welfare system. The other of the women half have informal arrangements with family members.

While the majority of families served come from around Milwaukee, they work with clients from all over Wisconsin. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a three-month shutdown of the program, and they are still unable to serve as many people in person as before the pandemic. The evolving remote treatments have become a more important part of their offerings so they can help more people, especially those who are out-of-own.

The program’s research-based track record is impressive: 85% of women involved in the child welfare system improved their parenting skills, were reunited with their children, or had increased visitation with their children. 

And a full 100% of women who participated in parent‐child therapy showed improvement in their interactions.

“We say we have three clients in the room when we're meeting with the mom and child. We have the child, we have the mom, and we have the relationship,” she said. “We focus on strengthening the relationship so that the child can experience healthy and secure attachment and are able to express a wide range of feelings so they can learn and grow.”

Eileen’s innovation is grounded in community and collaboration. Eileen works with the Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health, Child Welfare Services, Children’s Hospital, Family Drug Treatment Court and a host of other organizations to meet the needs of the families at Meta House.

Healing the parent

“The astounding thing is all the work we’re having parents do with children is also healing for the parent,” she said. “The fact is the child inside did not have these things for themselves.”

While the program’s important gains are unmistakable, Sperl is personally rewarded by seeing the joy she helps to spark through her work. “Even if the only thing that comes out of it is that parents and children enjoy each other and have positive time together, then it's a win,” she said.


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