CASES SPOTLIGHT: Five Questions with Sian Caisey and Eric Kolb, Directors of Adolescent Portable Therapy

In 2014, CASES assumed operation of Adolescent Portable Therapy (APT) [1] from the Vera Institute of Justice [2]. APT provides short-term family therapy for justice-involved young people age 12-24. APT employs a flexible in-home therapeutic model that identifies, reinforces, and leverages a family’s existing strengths and works to nurture a unified willingness among family members to learn new relational skills. Since the model’s initial use by Vera in 2001, APT has consistently helped young people to successfully fulfill the requirements of jail diversion programs and probation supervision. The program’s outcomes include a reduction in a young person’s symptoms of mental illness, improved family functioning, decreased substance use, improved educational engagement, and reduced recidivism.

CASES’ Co-Directors of APT, Sian Casey and Eric Kolb, joined CASES from Vera in 2014 and combined have more than twenty years experience with APT.

How did you get started in APT?

Sian Caisey: I’m a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and obtained my master’s in counseling and guidance from New York University in 2005. During my final year of graduate school I interned at Groundwork, a small nonprofit in East New York, where I worked as part of a school-based support team to provide individual and group counseling to students with behavioral issues in the in-school suspension and after-school program.

It was through a case at Groundwork that I stumbled into family therapy and, ultimately, APT. One of my clients was struggling emotionally and agreed to let me talk with her foster family after the program ended, which turned into an hour-long conversation around their dining room table. The experience opened my eyes to how valuable supportive adults are in helping young people stay on track and how often their input and relational power is overlooked. My supervisor was a former APT therapist and strongly encouraged me to apply for one of their open therapist positions. Twelve years later I am still here!

Eric Kolb: I majored in psychology at New College in Florida and got my master’s in social work (MSW) at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. After working in foster care group homes, I was hired by APT in 2006. In my APT interview, I passed the director a note that said, “Do you like me? Check yes or no.” I’ve been doing APT ever since.

What makes APT successful?

SC: APT is a flexible model that allows therapists to adapt their style to meet the specific needs of each family—there are no prescriptive steps or scripts that direct sessions. APT uses a philosophical approach that includes a set of principles that guide our practice. At APT we collaborate with each family to earn and understand their story, being sure to communicate that they are the experts on their lives and we are here to support change by using their existing strengths.

EK: Our flexibility in meeting with families is one of the key parts, for sure. With families who are regularly dealing with a variety of complex stressors, it can be a huge relief for them to have a service provider just say, “What works for you?” Another key aspect of APT is our approach to talking to kids. System-involved families, especially teens, can be suspicious of therapy. This suspicion can only grow in traditional mental health service areas where justice-involvement often frightens people, resulting in the teen experiencing a therapist’s fear of him/her. We’re not scared of the kids, and their parents see that. This leads to a better relationship with all members of the family and allows for more openness.

What is something you’ve learned providing APT?

SC: Aside from learning every MTA train line by memory, working in the field has given me a deeper appreciation for the profound love and concern caregivers have for their adolescent, despite how fractured the relationship may appear on the surface. Adolescence is often considered a tumultuous time for teenagers, but we forget that caregivers are also navigating this journey with their teen. There’s no instruction guide to follow. When I recently became a mother, so many of my clients offered me advice, which was not only helpful, but also allowed them to remember a time when they felt good about their parenting, a feeling they don’t get to experience that often when their teen is justice-involved.

EK: I’ve learned how hard it is to find good mental health services for justice-involved kids and their families. The barriers that get set up seem to be designed to ensure they fail and can’t access appropriate services. I am always shocked by the number of kids I’ve met who have been in therapy before but report not having good experiences.

What’s something exciting that is currently happening in your work?

SC: One of the most exciting things we have experienced since coming onboard at CASES is the expansion of our program to serve a wider range of youth, specifically young adults. APT recently received funding through the Robin Hood Foundation to work with youth living in Queens, a borough where access to services can be challenging. This expansion has also meant that we have hired more staff—APT has more than doubled in size since our transition to CASES. In addition to our expansion locally, Eric and I recently presented APT at the Child Welfare League of America National Conference in Washington, D.C.

EK: I’m with Sian on this—the rapid growth and expansion of APT has definitely been exciting. I still do this work because I genuinely believe in its impact, and I am thrilled to see it being offered to more and more young people and their families.

What has kept you working in APT?

SC: Working at APT for the last 12 years has allowed me to watch and be part of the program’s development over time. This personal investment in the program’s success along with my belief in the right of justice-involved youth to have the chance to write a new next chapter in their story is what keeps me connected to the work and to CASES.

EK: So many things! The first being that criminal justice work is the primary civil rights battle of our time, and it’s important for me, personally, to be involved in that work. However, the overarching reason I continue to do this work is that it is a gift to be let into the lives and homes of the families I work with, and to be trusted to help them through difficult and confusing times. Helping parents and their kids to see each other in complex, loving ways and talk to each other in ways that they may have forgotten is incredibly valuable work.

CASES is grateful to the Robin Hood Foundation, William and Dorothy O’Neill Foundation, Court-Involved Youth Mental Health Initiative of New York City Council, NYC Department of Probation, and NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services for their support of APT.