Last Two Battlegrounds to Raise the Age: NY and NC


Feb 16, 2017 8:28:00 AM

Only two states remain that automatically charge 16-year-olds as adults

The need to raise the age of criminal responsibility has been written about here more than once. (Charging Juvenile Offenders as Adults parts one and two being two examples). Progress has been made, but our fight is not over. There are still two states left that prosecute and place children in the adult criminal-justice system—North Carolina and New York. 

Let’s recap what’s at stake:

  • Studies have found that young people transferred to the criminal justice system are more likely to be re-arrested for violent and other crimes than youth retained in the juvenile-justice system.

  • Studies have shown that youth in adult prisons are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff and 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than children placed in youth facilities.

  • Youth in adult prisons face the highest risk of sexual assault of all inmate populations.

  • Youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than in a juvenile facility. 

  • This issue disproportionately disrupts the lives of youth who are black or Latino.

These are just a few of the facts that make charging minors as adults reprehensible, contradicting the goals of rehabilitation and public safety. It is imperative, for the sake of the young people, their families and our communities, that we find other options.

Take action now

You are not powerless. There are things you can do to make a positive impact. So, let’s talk about what those things are. There are campaigns in New York and North Carolina working to push through legislation to raise the age. You can find them on Facebook by searching @RaiseTheAgeNYand @RaiseTheAgeNorthCarolina. Find them on twitter here and here. Follow them, visit their websites, and follow their calls to action as they publish them. 

On RaisetheAgeNY’s website, there is a Take Action section that details a few different ways to get involved including their “Call-in for Justice Action” on the 16th of every month. It takes only two minutes to let your elected representatives know you want them to Raise the Age in 2017. There is also a link to a form for emailing your representatives with a statement in support of Raise the Age. Currently, there are petitions to eight different officials to Raise the Age. You can sign by clicking here.

RaisetheAgeNorthCarolina has a page on North Carolina Child’s website. They do not have actions listed, but their Facebook page posts calls to action when there are opportunities to support the cause. Additionally, you can sign a current petition to the North Carolina State House, North Carolina state senate and North Carolina governor asking to Raise the Age. You can access and sign the petition here

Let’s do what we can to create a country united around the idea that children in all states deserve the chance to age-appropriate, evidence-based alternatives such as Multisystemic Therapy. Let’s Raise the Age!

Sarah Johansson is an MST-SA Supervisor at Sheltering Arms in New York.

What to Expect When an MST Therapist Comes into Your Home


Nov 17, 2015 9:00:00 AM

Sometimes a stranger can bring great meaning to your life

If you’re a parent whose child is referred to Multisystemic Therapy, chances are you are wondering about the stranger being sent to your home. Thoughts running through your brain might include, who is this person, what is his or her clinical experience? Are they skilled enough to help with my child? Will this therapist judge or blame me? What makes this therapist and this program different from the other programs we’ve tried?

Six months ago, after working as a therapist on an MST team, I was promoted to its clinical supervisor. Now, I’d like to “pull back the curtain” and tell you more about the four dedicated therapists with whom I work. They all have different strengths in their work, but they have one thing in common—their passion to help families create change.

Their backgrounds range from clinical social work to marriage and family therapy. Despite their previous experiences, they, like all therapists, must go through MST’s rigorous and continuous training to learn the model and how to implement it as closely as possible. They are out in the field, rain or shine, at the mercy of New York City public transit. They run between the families’ homes and try to always meet them where they are.

My therapists stay strong in the ebbs and flows of their families’ emotions and support them through some of the toughest moments. They advocate for these families in a system that often lets them slip through the cracks. They put their clinical skills to the test in every single session, in every treatment plan they write, in weekly group supervision and in their individual clinician development.

Therapists are ready day or night to help their clients

I often receive phone calls or a head popping into my office when a therapist wants to run ideas by me to make sure they are helping their families in the best way possible. I have seen my therapists laugh with their families, be a cheerleader for tired parents when hopelessness consumes them, shed tears of empathy for them, be a stable support for a family experiencing setbacks, and beam with pride when a kid meets his or her treatment goals. They bend their schedules to accommodate their families’ needs. Sometimes, this means before the parents and kids have changed out of their pj’s in the morning or after they have changed into them in the evening or any time in between. My therapists take seriously the responsibility of being invited into a family’s home. When a crisis arises at 2 a.m., they are the caring professional on the other end of the phone ready to offer support and walk the family through it.

I am saying all of this because if you are a family considering whether to accept MST treatment for your child, you will not only get an evidence-based model but also the support needed to create behavioral change in kids. As a clinical supervisor, I am humbled to be able to tell families that if they choose MST they are welcoming a therapist that will genuinely care about them and do whatever it takes to help them create the change they want. I am grateful to my therapists for allowing me to be able to say this with certainty because I see them delivering on that promise every single day.

Sarah Johansson is an MST Clinical Supervisor at Little Flower Children & Family Services

How Multisystemic Therapy Empowers Families: A Therapist's View


Jan 5, 2015 9:30:00 AM

MST provides parents with the tools to build strong families

When I think about the kids I meet and the families who invite me into their homes, I think about despair that no one should have to experience. These parents at some point lost the power, not only to their child who is acting up, but to the system. If you have ever held the hand of someone who is fighting back the tears as the judge is preparing to announce the decision he or she has made about the child's future, you know what despair I'm talking about.

The beauty of offering Multisystemic Therapy as an alternative to placement is that you are helping families take back their power. MST helps to empower parents by offering resources, support and tools to regain control over their child's behavior and their child's life. If you look at the nine principles of MST, they are all constructed to do just that.

  1. Finding the Fit—No cookie-cutter solutions. What is the challenge for this specific child and this specific family? What is contributing to James staying out all night? What is making the family reluctant to give Alex a consequence for her negative behavior?

  2. Focusing on positives and strengths—Often when I meet parents, they will reflect, wondering "where did I go wrong?" and share a sense of having fallen short at raising their child. This principle instills hope because there are always strengths, in any and every family, and by pointing these out to the parents, you see a sense of relief in their eyes and a glimmer of hope. It is these strengths that we use to create change. Capitalizing on strengths gives them strategies they can use and continue to implement in the future.

  3. Increasing responsibility—By tailoring interventions to focus on increasing responsible behavior in family members, you are focusing on creating a self-reliant family that does not need support from the system because they have the tools to address challenges on their own.

  4. Present focused, action oriented and well defined—Contrary to popular beliefs, therapy, especially MST, does not mean fluffy conversations about our feelings. This principle means that based on the measurable treatment goals to address current behaviors, interventions are developed that require action. He locks himself in his room when the parent is trying to implement a consequence? Let's get off the couch and remove the lock from the door right now. She ignores the parent's calls when she didn't make it home on time for curfew? Let's install the app that locks her phone from all activity, but to call the parent back. The school never returns the parent's attempts to reach them? Let's use tomorrow's session to visit the school and see if we can find someone with whom the parent can maintain contact. Empowering the parents, one action-oriented intervention at a time.

  5. Targeting sequences—So, something didn't go according to plan. That's frustrating. Let's troubleshoot. By looking at sequences, the parent learns to evaluate an incident and identify what could have been done differently to create a more desirable outcome for them and the youth. Altering predictable sequences also allows families to change interaction patterns that have sometimes been problematic for years, thus this principle is at the heart of MST’s family therapy approach.

  6. Developmentally appropriate—To set up the family for success, all interventions need to be tailored to the youth's age and maturity level. Sometimes this is trickier than one might think. A parent will say "she's 17, so she should be able to handle this." But if a 17-year-old is behaving like a 10-year-old, we can't treat her like her chronological age. We have to develop interventions that target the 10-year-old behavior. When this is explained to parents, they will often chuckle, nod in agreement and say, “All right, let's do this.” At the same time, we make sure parents understand the changing needs as teens grow and mature. Similarly, all interventions are adjusted to the parents’ skills and take the family’s culture into account.

  7. Continuous effort—The idea behind this is that MST requires family members to work daily or weekly with interventions. And this makes sense for two reasons:

    • MST is time limited, and we want as much bang for our buck as possible.

    • Continuous effort becomes a part of the family's pattern long after they are done with MST. That equals sustainable change.

  8. Evaluation and accountability— MST holds therapists and their teams accountable for outcomes. If something isn’t working, we don’t blame the family. Ever. The family is doing the best they can with what they are given. It is my job as a therapist to provide them with tools that predict and address any barriers to their effectiveness. I am the support, I am the sounding board, I am the troubleshooting partner for the parents. I also assess our progress and effectiveness from multiple perspectives. I don’t assume that Diego is going to school because he walked into the house right after he should have made it from the train; I ask Dad to check Diego’s attendance records with the school and help the parents develop a link to the school to continue checking in after I’m gone. 

  9. Generalization— The ultimate principle in giving power back to the family. All the interventions developed in treatment are tailored for the family to be able to maintain when MST is long gone. I am there for a very limited time. So the tools I offer need to be tools that can be used in the long run, without my support. When a family sends me a message six months after we closed to share how they just handled a situation with one of their other kids on their own with what they learned from MST, it gives me evidence of how this treatment has long-term effect for these families.

To me, this is how I view my role—to help build empowered families. By offering a family MST as an alternative to placement, the system is also empowering the family. Give those holding back tears in that courtroom the opportunity to gain control over their family's destiny, and let them spread that knowledge throughout their community.

“The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.”– Confucius

Sarah Johansson is a clinical MST supervisor at Safe Space Sheltering Arms in New York City

Newly combined mental health service agency celebrated in New Bern

Newly combined mental health service agency celebrated in New Bern

David Richard, deputy secretary for behavioral health and developmental disabilities services, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, addresses a luncheon in New Bern. He spoke after East Carolina Behavioral Health and CoastalCare signed an agreement to merge the two groups. 

Photo by Bill Hand/Halifax Media Service

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