MST-CAN: Stopping Child Abuse and Neglect

Posted by Joanne Penman

Apr 25, 2018 1:00:00 PM

A psychiatrist from the Netherlands explains the role that MST-CAN can play in stopping child abuse

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. Children being harmed physically and psychologically are a problem for our society that has long-lasting costs for everyone. Children may experience lifelong mental and physical health problems, substance-misuse; homelessness; and involvement in the criminal justice system.

Authorities, schools and others are bombarded with concerns.

“I don’t think the children are safe in his care.” 

“Those parents are beyond help.”

“That mother is out of control. Somebody should do something.” 


Many families who encounter Child Protective Services (CPS) are in danger of having their children placed out of home due to physical abuse and/or neglect. Taking children away from their home can damage the family permanently and be costly to community resources. In the U.S. alone, the cost of child abuse and neglect is $585 billion per year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

These caregivers experience difficulties with the police, school and other professionals. They can be viewed as not caring about their children or just labeled as “bad parents.”

The truth is often they have experienced their own trauma, have unmanaged mental-health and/or substance-using concerns. These families require and deserve a holistic treatment approach that will make a difference in their lives and have a long-lasting impact on generations to come. 


MST-CAN does just that. 

Dr. Femke Kamphuis, a psychiatrist from the Netherlands, knows that one reason the MST-CAN model is so effective is because of the critical role the psychiatrist plays on the team.

She points out that like standard Multisystemic Therapy (MST), the MST-CAN model is very structured, strength focused and thorough. At the same time, the model flexes to meet the individual needs of each family. MST-CAN treats the needs of the caregiver and the child at the same time, as well as any other family members (e.g., siblings, extended family members). 

Other models tend to separate the family or may view the problems and concerns of each person as independent of one another, treating them in isolation. By using a holistic approach, the MST-CAN team views the strengths and needs of the family as interconnected.

Let’s say a caregiver has an unmanaged mental-health problem. The MST-CAN therapist works to understand how that is affecting the whole family system. Thinking about what has to happen to help the caregiver better manage his/her mental health problems can have an effect on how that caregiver then functions as a parent.

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Trauma as a factor

In many cases, the caregiver and/or the child have experienced trauma. The therapist must work to help the family address this as a priority in an evidence-based treatment approach such as MST-CAN. 

The therapy starts with a thorough assessment. That is where a psychiatrist comes in. He or she conducts formal assessments with the young person and caregiver. Therapists also complete the MST-CAN Initial Strengths and Needs assessments. Findings are then put together to better understand what is going on. 

Taking time to do thorough assessments provides a good picture of what is occurring for each individual in the family. Their treatment can then be tailored to meet their needs. 

Safety plan

The first step for most families is detailed safety planning to ensure the priority of keeping all family members safe. Therapists work with family members to give them the required skills to follow the safety plans. The therapist meets with the family several times a week and checks in often to make sure plans are being followed or adjusted as needed. This is important not only for the family, but also for the referral agencies. 

Dr. Kamphuis points out that while she is not part of the day-to-day treatment, she attends the weekly MST supervision meetings. She provides ongoing input to the treatment process, which allows her to really get a sense of how a family is doing. For Kamphuis, there is nothing better than seeing a caregiver and child improve their relationship. “I am proud of all our families and the hard work they do to address the many challenges in their lives. I get a smile on my face when a caregiver changes how he/she is interacting with his/her children, school or professional in a positive way. When someone says they can see how the caregiver has changed—that makes me very proud of the work we do.” 

To learn more about the effective treatment of the MST-CAN model, read the white paper here.


Topics: Child Welfare