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Taking Back Our Teens
With support and practice, parents can regain authority in their families.

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Illustration by Erika Faye Burke

This spring, New York City’s Children’s Services (ACS) announced a new initiative to keep teens safe at home and out of foster care. The “Teen Preventive Initiative” will expand access to two intensive, short-term supports—Multi-Systemic Therapy (MST) and Family Functional Therapy (FFT). Both focus on supporting the whole family and have been proven to help families of teens during a crisis.

Here, Sara Hemmeter, NYC Children’s Services Associate Commissioner of Family and Youth Justice Programs, and Paul Schiller, Division Director of MST at The Children’s Village, describe how families can turn things around with their teens:

‘I’ve Lost Him’

Hemmeter: In 2010, 2,500 teens entered foster care in NYC. We know that foster care is often not the answer for teenagers or any young person. With this initiative, we hope to see a 30-40 percent drop in the number of teens placed in foster care.

Schiller: A lot of parents feel that they’ve lost their kids to the street. They say, ‘He’s 16, he’s grown, I’ve lost him.’ MST is about empowering parents to respond to challenges. Our job is to motivate parents not to give up and to keep trying to find things that the teen will respond to.

MST is not the same as “going to therapy” and it’s not focused on the teen alone. We involve the family, school, peers and community. We meet with families at least twice a week at their homes or other places in their community at times that are convenient. We’re also available to talk to families 24-7. Our goal is to help families think creatively and to give parents back their power.

Planning With Families

Schiller: For instance, a lot of schools are not very family friendly and use language that parents don’t understand. We can help parents advocate for school services and develop stronger relationships with school staff.

We can also help parents develop a stronger support system of extended family and neighbors. It’s important to track where your teen is and who he is with. We’ve seen neighbors call and say, “You asked me to call if I saw your child on this side of town. Well, I’ve seen him.”

One of the biggest ways to counteract a young person’s negative behaviors is to replace them with positive behaviors. In addition to saying, “No, don’t do that,” we help parents find resources in their neighborhoods so they can say, “Do this instead.”

From Helpless to Hopeful

Schiller: The families we see struggle to manage teens who have stopped following their parents’ rules, wishes, expectations and values. They’re engaging in dangerous and destructive behaviors and openly refusing to participate in any activities that contribute to the home. Parents feel helpless, but often they have more power than they realize.

One young man we worked with enjoyed sleeping in and hanging out with his friends. Day in and day out there was nothing to deter him—he still enjoyed the privileges of home, like watching TV and having his meals cooked and laundry done by his mom. Every day mom would ask, “Will you please get up and go to school today.” He’d say: “No, I don’t feel like it and there isn’t anything you can do to make me go.”

This parent, like so many others, just felt stuck. It was clear she needed and wanted to stop “asking” and start “telling.” The MST therapist practiced with mom how to give a directive with authority. They practiced tone and word choice and planned out responses. It was like preparing for battle. Then the parent told her son that she respected that he was willing to make decisions, but that her responsibility was to teach him that every decision has a consequence and to guide him down a healthy path. The next day, he awoke to find that there was no more TV to watch.

It’s almost cliché to say that things get worse before they get better, but that’s true for many of our families. When parents start setting limits and supervising their children more closely, they are all too often met with infuriated adolescents who are determined to make their parents give up. This is when the hard work begins. MST therapists are available to give parents the support, encouragement and practice to stick to their guns. When the teen is able to see that it is to their benefit to follow the rules, change happens.

Proven Results

Schiller: When supports are individualized, families can make these major changes in just four or five months; 86 percent of our teens are living at home with their families when we complete treatment. Families also are able to stick with MST—only about 50 percent of families stick with traditional therapy, but 90 percent of our families complete treatment.

Hemmeter: We’ve been using MST and FFT with families who want to file a PINS petition, which can result in foster care placement. These programs help families in crisis. We’ve seen a significant drop in the number of PINS filings and placements when families are offered these services, and we’ve seen kids attending school more often, using substances less and getting involved in positive activities. We are working now to make these services available to families citywide by the spring of 2013.

To access MST or FFT, contact the Family Assistance Program (FAP) in your neighborhood: Manhattan (212) 341-0012; Brooklyn (718) 260-8550 or (718) 260-8508; Queens (718) 725-3244; Bronx (718) 664-1731; Staten Island (718) 720-0071.

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