Family Focused: Opposite of ‘Scared Straight,’ Intervention Helps Youth Connect and Feel Understood

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A juvenile court program in Georgia paired 17-year-old K.P. with a volunteer mentor, Fort Benning U.S. Army Sgt. Darryl Smith. Their chemistry is clear.

PHOTOS BY Ramona Galapon-Wilson, Juvenile Justice Incentive Grant Program Administrator for Muscogee County, Georgia

A juvenile court program in Georgia paired 17-year-old K.P. with a volunteer mentor, Fort Benning U.S. Army Sgt. Darryl Smith. Their chemistry is clear.

“I thought my life was coming to an end. Oh my God, he’s a good kid,” said Geselle Colón, recounting the story of her son being sent into juvenile detention in Columbus, Georgia.

Sixteen-year-old Esteban De Jesus-Colón is a stellar athlete, popular and a good student at school. But early into adolescence, his anger was spiraling out of control.

“I had a brand-new car, and he went and kicked out the headlights,” Colón recalled.

Esteban lashed out at both parents following their separation. Last year, he got into a physical altercation with his father. His 13-year-old brother saw what was happening and called the police. His father pressed charges. Esteban was charged and convicted of domestic violence — and spent 16 days in lockup at a youth detention center. At the time, both parents felt it was time he faced the music. But Esteban felt betrayed.

“If someone was trying to control me, I was quick to react with my hands instead of taking the time to think about consequences,” Esteban said.

But what happened next was life-changing. A court referral led to an evidence-based intervention called Functional Family Therapy (FFT), which involves short-term counseling in the home, working with family members or caregivers. Geselle, her son Esteban and his three brothers all participated, though his father did not. Even so, Esteban says his relationship with his dad and all family members improved.

“It taught me different ways to handle a situation. It got my mom and brothers to understand what I was going through — and how to cope,” said Esteban. “It just really helped that we were able to talk as a family. Everyone learned how to speak to each other without pointing fingers.” Esteban now lives with his father on much better terms.

Large-scale effect, limited scope

The pathway to getting this kind of help varies. Mostly, individual states provide funding for court-ordered FFT. But increasingly community programs and schools offer the program — and in some cases, individual insurance and Medicaid cover the costs. Bottom line: where FFT is accessible, it is possible for troubled youths and families who otherwise could not afford treatment to benefit.

Yet its scope is limited. Only 5 percent of families nationwide receive science-based treatment and of that, FFT is a subset. The model currently is in use in 45 states and 10 countries around the world, serving 50,000 families, according to Functional Family Therapy LLC, the model’s training and quality assurance organization. Psychologist James Alexander created the concept in the 1970s, but only in recent years has it picked up steam, as policymakers began to do the math and recognize the potential savings.

“One in five kids in the United States live in poverty. Those percentages are even higher for those involved in the juvenile justice system,” said Doug Kopp, CEO of the Seattle-based Functional Family Therapy organization.

As a result, a high proportion of FFT clients tend to be from families who are living in poverty."

How effective is FFT? The range is wide but significant: a 25 to 60-percent recidivism reduction in areas that provide the program, based on internal and external evaluations, according to Functional Family Therapy LLC.

“In juvenile justice reform, we know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to effective interventions that get kids and their families back on the right path,” said Sharon Hill, executive director of Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice — and a former juvenile court judge. “Functional Family Therapy is one of the programs that actually works, and works very well at a reasonable cost of both time and money.”

Creating a family alliance

“The intervention is noteworthy because it is family-focused. We provide a sense of alliance so each person is going to be heard,” said Kopp.

“What we find is there has been a fair amount of blaming, negativity and difficulty functioning as a family. Parents often already have beaten themselves up saying, ‘I haven’t done enough of all the things I could have, I should have,’” said Kopp. “Often there’s a profound sense of hopelessness.”

FFT helps find ways to give them another shot. “With kids, what we’re trying to do is decrease the likelihood they will do harm again against someone else or the community. We definitely want people to own their behavior — but without judgment or shame.”

It’s a far cry from finger-wagging or so-called scared straight interventions. “We approach things first of all from a position of respect, and people can feel that,” said Kopp. “It’s powerful. Families feel better about themselves. It’s a relief to get things back on track and have the tools they need to do that.”

Geselle Colón believes FFT gave her family practical communication tools to bring her son, Esteban, back into the fold with a promising future.

Geselle Colón believes FFT gave her family practical communication tools to bring her son, Esteban, back into the fold with a promising future.

“I felt that we had a toolbox at home and we were just not using the tools inside. Our therapist showed us how to unlock the box and use the tools,” said Colón. “I learned to stop accusing first and to say ‘I am not comfortable with that behavior,’ instead of saying ‘what you are doing is wrong.’ It made a big difference to have all of us there — Esteban and his brothers.”

Improvements following juvenile justice reform

The United States incarcerates more young people than other any other developed nation — with staggering costs. In fiscal year 2015, Georgia spent an average of $113,269 for each of the approximately 1,300 young people in juvenile lockup, according to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, himself a former juvenile court judge, has backed sweeping reforms, including Juvenile Justice Incentive Grants to fund evidence-based programs like FFT and the Juvenile Drug Court (JDC) program. DJJ statistics show the number of incarcerated young people has dropped 18 percent since 2013.

“Georgia leads the nation in meaningful justice reforms, and the Juvenile Justice Incentive Grant (JJIG) program has furthered the goal of increasing public safety while rehabilitating youth through a more effective juvenile system,” said Deal.

Deputy Commissioner Joe Vignati of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice puts it this way: “As we move into our fourth year of incentive grant funding, we continue to be pleased at how juvenile-specific, evidence-based interventions have positively impacted the lives of children across Georgia. We are particularly pleased that family-focused models, like Functional Family Therapy and Multi-Systemic Therapy, have expanded into more rural areas of our state and are available to more families than ever before.”

“Before the incentive grants, there simply wasn’t enough money to pay for these gold-standard interventions. So we paid even more by locking kids up,” said Hill, whose organization was a lead partner in advocating for the sweeping reform legislation. “But now Georgia is making a lot of smart decisions. The challenge is to keep reinvesting in the JJIG program so that it can expand to serve kids and families on the cusp of entering the system. The good news is that we are getting there.”

A tailored approach

“FFT offers specific interventions for the unique challenges, diverse qualities and strengths of families,” said Kopp.

Sherri Felton — custodian for her 13-year-old nephew, Jermaine Graham — needed that kind of help. “When I tried to tell him what to do at home, it got worse and worse. Things were escalating, and I wasn’t reaching him,” said Felton, who is retired and raising Jermaine on her own. “It seemed hopeless.”

“One day, he just stood in front of me and refused to move. I tried to call 911, but he slapped the phone out of my hand,” said Felton. The connection already had gone through and when police arrived, they arrested Jermaine for interfering with the call.

“I really thought I was going to jail,” Jermaine recalled. Instead, Muscogee County Juvenile Court Judge Warner Kennon ordered a 30-day probation followed by an anger management course and Functional Family Therapy.

Columbus, Georgia-based FFT consultant Ervin Christie began counseling Jermaine and his custodial mom. “He [Christie] respects me,” Jermaine said. “He listens. It’s important because I didn’t have anyone to listen before. Now I listen to my mom — and she listens to me, too.”

Jermaine learned to cool off with simple acts such as going to his room and counting back from 100. “I’ve learned to take a timeout breath and think through the consequences,” he added.

The positive ramifications are far-reaching. In Jermaine’s case, behavioral changes extend to his school and community. “He’s made a U-turn, a real turnaround,” Felton said. “His grades are up. His teachers say it’s like night and day. He runs track and expresses himself through art. He’s calmed down. And I’ve learned to listen and be more patient. I’m feeling very positive.”

Following completion of FFT, Jermaine Graham and his custodial parent, Sherri Felton, now listen to one another. Jermaine's school grades are up and he enjoys art as a calming strategy.

PHOTO BY Ramona Galapon-Wilson, Juvenile Justice Incentive Grant Program Administrator for Muscogee County, Georgia

Following completion of FFT, Jermaine Graham and his custodial parent, Sherri Felton, now listen to one another. Jermaine's school grades are up and he enjoys art as a calming strategy.

Judge Kennon, who also serves on the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said, “FFT keeps a lot of these kids from coming back and reoffending. Parents learn life skills. And they don’t have transportation issues because trainers go into the home.”

It’s young men like K.P. who Judge Kennon wants to see succeed. The 17-year-old first came through juvenile court charged with misdemeanor theft by taking. Kennon assigned the teen and his family to FFT. It helped — but later K.P. ran into trouble again, this time with a misdemeanor for possession of marijuana. He then entered the Muscogee County Juvenile Drug Court program and was paired with a volunteer mentor: U.S. Army Sergeant Darryl Smith from nearby Fort Benning, Georgia. The teamwork paid off. K.P. recently graduated from JDC.

Tracking FFT’s success

A program called Blueprints at the University of Colorado-Boulder tracks evidence-based positive youth development programs to assess their effectiveness. More than 1,400 programs have been reviewed, but less than 5 percent have been designated as promising, model programs. Functional Family Therapy meets Blueprints’ highest criteria for success.

The FFT model generally covers just eight to 16 weeks of counseling, but supporters say it empowers youth and their families with a long-term foundation to become more adaptive and successful.

“Our time with Dr. Christie is finished, but we still have his number and we know we can call,” said Felton.

“FFT gave us a solid foundation to carry on,” said Colón. “As the mother of four boys, I now have the tools to approach them. It makes a difference. Before, we were not communicating how we felt and we were walking on eggshells. Now we don’t hold things inside. The change is absolutely amazing.”

“This is going to stick with me,” said Esteban. “I hope when I have kids, I’ll be able to teach them to express themselves without blaming others. I want to use what I’ve learned, so that they grow up to be responsible — and be leaders.”

This story was co-published with Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, a non-partisan initiative that brings together diverse perspectives from the political, policy, advocacy and philanthropic communities to find genuine solutions to the economic hardship confronting millions of Americans.


FFT lessons for the broader community

There are lessons from the Functional Family Therapy (FFT) model that serve the larger community, from the arts, athletics and faith-based groups to community organizations and after-school programs.

Here are five take-away principles from FFT that apply beyond the home setting:

  1. Assess interpersonal relationships to determine what kind of intervention is appropriate and relevant.
  2. Change difficult behaviors by educating families (or participants) on healthier communication, conflict management, problem solving — and how to work together to strengthen ties.
  3. Engage youth and family members by being responsive and available.
  4. Motivate youth and families to decrease the intense negativity brought on by blaming and hopelessness. In situations of abandonment, abuse, cultural isolation, depression, deprivation, loss or racism, turn these powerful emotional forces into motivation through respect, sensitivity and positive attribution.
  5. Reduce problem situations by informing families about community resources and relapse prevention.