In Honor of Social Work Month: The Team That Helps Troubled Teens and Families Change Course

HALE III staff

A Q&A with Our HALE III Team

HALE III staff

The HALE III team is a close-knit group. Here they are at a baby shower for two of their team members.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A provides a snapshot of the important role our social workers and other therapists play in the lives of some of NYC’s most under-served children and families. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, these dedicated professionals now are conducting tele-visits instead of in-person visits — and they have done it without missing a beat. Stay tuned for stories of how various members of The Child Center’s dedicated staff are going above and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is affecting all of us, but has unique implications for our clients.


The Child Center of NY’s HALE (Holding Adolescents in Loving Environments) III program uses evidence-based family interventions to reduce risks of abuse and foster care placement. Most families in the program have sought our services voluntarily. Some are referred to us by the NYC Administration for Children’s Services. Regardless of how families come to us, our HALE III team — made up of therapists Elsa Barkhordarian, LMSW; Webb Casimir, MSW candidate; Therese Despeine, MA MFT; Vanessa Heller, LCSW, MPH; Domonique Wilson, MSW; Tatiana Wilson, MHC; Program Secretary Lissette Camilleri; and Program Director Elizabeth Traverso, LCSW-R — understands that the vast majority of parents want to do well by their children and will do so when given the right skills, counseling, and support. The team works to equip families with these tools. Here’s how they do it.

The Child Center of NY: You work with families who are dealing with significant issues. How do you help them?

Program Director Elizabeth Traverso, LCSW-R: We do help families with significant challenges. Parents go to Family Court because the children are refusing to go to school, ignoring their curfew or have run away, using drugs, or have just been disrespectful and not listening to the point that parents don’t know what to do. We’re considered a diversion program because we “divert” kids from being involved with the criminal justice or foster care system. But we don’t just “divert” kids — we work with the whole family to create new constructive patterns, without judgment or blaming.

We use a model called FFT— Functional Family Therapy — which works on the premise that what’s going with this one child is related to what’s going on with the family. We work with each member, together as a unit.

We also look at the root causes of the behavior. If a child is refusing to go to school, why is that? Is he struggling academically? Is he being bullied? We liaise with the schools, which is a big help to the families we serve. A lot of them are either immigrants who are not familiar with our school system, or they went through our school system but didn’t do well, which leaves them thinking, how can I advocate for my child and help him with school when I didn’t do well myself? Or they just have difficulty dealing with the educational system, which is large and has changed since they were in school. We help them become effective advocates for their children and to work together as a family.

That sounds terrific. Can you give an example of how it has worked in practice?

Therese Despeine, MA MFT: A family I had my first year at The Child Center always stands out to me. The son was having problems with truancy and non-compliance. He wouldn’t even speak to his parents, who loved him so much.

FFT operates in phases. The first phase is engaging with and learning about the family, and motivating them; the second is changing the behavior; and the third is generalization — preparing the family to apply the concepts to different situations so they don’t need us anymore and can exit therapy.

In the first phase with this family, the parents shifted but the teen hadn’t. He remained quiet and made it clear he was participating only because the court told him he had to.

Then when we were playing a game one session, he got really emotional. He admitted that he thought his dad didn’t love him because he was hardly ever home and didn’t spend time with him. When he admitted that, the dad started crying because he never knew his son felt that way. Due to financial circumstances, the dad had to work extra shifts. He was rarely home and was exhausted when he was home. He explained that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to be with his son — he just needed to work a lot of hours to make ends meet.

That’s when the whole family shifted. They were more intentional about spending time together. The teen listened to his parents more and began to comply with the curfew his parents set. FFT was a new model for me, but this case really solidified for me what it’s all about. It’s a great feeling to close a case with confidence that the family will be OK.

How do you, the staff of HALE III, work together as a team?

Therese Despeine: Even though we all practice FFT, we have different strengths, and if we’re ever “stuck,” we can go to someone else on the team.

When I need to relate better to a parent better, I go to Webb — no one relates better to parents than Webb!

Domonique is a preventive genius.

Elsa has been here the longest and knows FFT the best.

Everyone has their strengths, and we all go to each other to draw on them.

It sounds like you all were meant for this work! Did you always know you wanted to be a therapist working with teens and families?

Tatiana Wilson, MHC: I wanted to be a lawyer! When I was doing an internship for my criminal justice degree, I worked on supervised visitation for the court. I asked the director, “How can I get more involved in helping these families?” She told me to be a social worker or mental health counselor. She was right.

Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?

HALE III staff member Vanessa Heller

Social Worker Vanessa Heller at her home office, where she “visits” with clients remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vanessa Heller, LCSW, MPH:

FFT is an incredible model in shifting understanding between parents and kids. I bet each of us could say how our own lives might have shifted if we’d had it in our own families growing up!

We help parents and kids understand each other differently — and it’s so special when you see the “light go off.” The kids see the parents as these nagging pests who are always angry at them, and the parents see their kids as rambunctious teenagers who are selfish and don’t see how much they’re doing as parents. I love being able to create that understanding and see that light go off for both, especially for the teenagers, who never thought of what it could be like to be in the shoes of their parent. They don’t see that the parent is scared to death that the decisions they make now may negatively impact their futures.

I work with a lot of Latinos. Most of them work hard on their feet. Several fathers work in kitchens and the mothers clean homes — they want a different life for their kids. When the kids really understand just how much fear their parents have around that, how they can’t even focus at work because they’re so scared for their kids … that’s when I see a real shift.

Going from individually focused therapy, which I previously practiced, to this particular model of family therapy has been life-changing. I find the most fulfillment in this work and have seen the most positive change for our families. It’s fantastic.

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