We Make House Calls: A Fresh Approach to Treating Juvenile Offenders

Article excerpt

A Fresh Approach to Treating Juvenile Offenders

Authors' Note: The names of juveniles and family members were changed in this article to protect their privacy. Professional models were used in the accompanying photography out of privacy concerns.

It was late at night when Mia Sell's beeper went off. She quickly returned the call and found that Bill had broken curfew again and Jean, his mother, was furious and didn't know what to do. Sell got both mother and son on the phone and calmed things down for the night. By the next day, after Sell visited the home, Bill was ready to apologize to his mother and accept his punishment.

"He got back on track right away," says Sell, a therapist with the Faith in Families program in Jacksonville, Fla. Sell and her fellow therapists in the program are on call 24 hours a day, and nighttime and weekend calls are the rule rather than the exception.

The MST Program

Faith in Families is one of two juvenile offender programs in Florida that employ the Multi-Systemic Therapy Program (MST). Both are run by the Henry and Rilla White Foundation inc. of Bronson, Fla., which operates several programs for youths and families throughout the state.

MST is a relatively new method of dealing with young offenders. It was developed at the Medical University of South Carolina in 1995 and is based on the theory that, in order to turn youthful offenders around, you have to make fundamental changes in their environment - not necessarily their physical environment, but the relationships that make up the environment, such as family, school and peer groups.

MST advocates believe that taking a youth away from home and placing him or her in a residential facility for six months or a year does little to solve the underlying problems that got them in trouble in the first place. And when you send them right back to the same environment in which they got in trouble, they are very likely to offend again.

The foundation was looking for a fresh approach to treating juvenile delinquency and MST appeared to offer the best opportunity to make a fundamental change in how government deals with children in trouble with the law. Foundations have the flexibility and freedom to experiment with new and innovative solutions to old and seemingly intractable problems, and often that experimentation becomes the model for the future.

"Typically, juvenile offender programs only deal with the kids," says Dick Grimm, a foundation consultant based in Pensacola, Fla., where the foundation's second MST program is entering its second year. "MST works in the youth's natural environment and empowers families to change for the better. We don't work in offices. We work around the kitchen table, in the home, in the school, in the neighborhood, in the church, with peer groups. There are many targets for intervention that correlate to the youth's delinquency."

He adds, "Rather than saying a kid failed, [our therapists] come up with a new way to deal with the kid. We look for the strengths in the family. The kid is going to have to return there someday anyway, so we help the parents learn to develop rules of behavior and deal with the problems that will arise."

Real Life Implications

Bill had spent 18 months in two residential programs after being convicted of two burglaries. When he was returning home, it was too late in the year to rejoin his normal school and his mother and sister were upset that their peaceful lives were going to be turned upside down again by Bill's behavior.

"He was an 'in-your-face' kind of kid," Sell says. "Bill's readjustment was a big issue. His morn and sister had worked out their own routines. They resented their peaceful house being disturbed again and his morn didn't understand how to handle conflict."

So, Sell visited Bill's friends and teachers and became a regular fixture in the home, helping to make real changes in the way the family members related to one another. …