Multi Systemic Therapy: An Evidence-Based Practice for At-Risk Youth

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2018

MSTArticleThe Providence Center’s (TPC) Child and Family division, located at 520 Hope Street, offers various levels of care for children of all ages. For at-risk teens ages 12-17 exhibiting behaviors like substance abuse, arrests, truancy, and involvement with delinquent peers, Multi-Systemic Therapy (MST) is a nationally-recognized treatment that has led to success for many families around the country.

The DCYF-funded program typically runs for three to five months, and is centered around intensive, community-based treatment, with sessions occurring in the natural environment, like the child’s home or school. The majority of referrals come from the state’s drug court, so MST incorporates toxicology screenings and programming tailored to substance use prevention.

“True to the ‘multi-systemic’ approach, the program examines the entire ecology of the child’s life to determine where the anti-social behavior stems from,” said Nicole Saunders, TPC’s MST Supervisor. “Our clinicians are looking at what’s going on at home, in school, with friends, and in the community to decide the best course of action.”

In addition to Saunders, the MST team consists of four clinicians, three of which are Spanish-speaking (TPCI has the only bilingual MST team in Rhode Island). The clinicians, on call 24/7, travel to meet with families all over the state, and have two or more meetings a week, based on need. Depending on the situation, clinicians may make referrals to other resources, like TPC’s child and family outpatient program.

The majority of sessions are with the parents, and focus on providing them with tools to break learned behaviors and helping them independently address issues that arise in the future. “For many families, the way they’ve been handling these negative behaviors is the only way they know how,” said Saunders. “We’re trying to empower them, so that they can start to take control of the household again.”

MST is unique among youth behavioral programs because of its foundation in research and action-oriented solutions, with interventions that target specific, well-defined problems and focus on present conditions. The model is built around constant reevaluation, with clinicians determining goals at the outset, then reassessing what worked or didn’t work on a weekly basis.

“Our program’s reputation in the community is based on the compassion of our great clinicians,” said Saunders. “I hear from families all the time that our staff were the only ones that took the time to work with their child and really care about their future.”

For questions about MST, or to learn about making a referral, please contact Nicole Saunders at