Juvenile Drug Courts Agree More Family Involvement Needed; Some Not Sure How to Do It: Report

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WASHINGTON — Juvenile drug treatment courts must do more to bring families into the treatment process if they want to help young offenders overcome addiction and stay out of the criminal justice system, a team of mental health professionals concluded in a sweeping report released today.

Using a survey of 158 drug courts in 38 states as a backdrop, the report highlights the need to improve the current approach to treatment and presents a set of tools to help courts incorporate family-involved treatment plans. Juvenile drug treatment courts have been less successful than traditional juvenile courts in stopping recidivism or drug use among youths charged with crimes, and even trails adult drug courts in success rates, according to research cited in the report.

The survey results and recommendations released today by Policy Research Associates and the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice are designed specifically to address that lack of success, the report’s authors said this week. Court workers taking the survey overwhelmingly agreed that more family participation is crucial to keeping teens from relapsing and identified several obstacles that prevent families from becoming more involved.  

For example, survey respondents said family-centered treatment programs would benefit by providing transportation or child care so family members can be more involved in the young person’s treatment.  They even pointed to the benefits of providing small incentives, such as movie tickets, to encourage more family participation.

Despite the clear need for family engagement, the survey found that more than one-third of court workers had little to no understanding of the best strategies for doing so.

Brett Harris

“One of the most important things we are trying to do is to provide information and the tools to courts, to help them increase their efforts,” said study co-author Brett Harris, a clinical assistant professor in public health at the State University of New York at Albany. “The very low level of familiarity with engagement techniques probably surprised us the most. They thought it was important to successful outcomes, and you see that in the survey results. But they didn’t know the best ways to do that.”

In 2015, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention examined nine juvenile drug courts from three regions. Authors of that study found seven of the nine programs saw “higher rates of new referrals for drug court youth when compared with youth on traditional probation.” Additionally, six of the nine regions saw higher recidivism rates in the drug courts.

The study did not fault the concept of juvenile drug courts, but instead found the courts were poorly run.

[Related: Substance Use, Mental Health & the Road to Recovery: ‘Like Juggling Explosives Blindfolded’]

”Many of the juvenile drug courts were not adequately assessing their clients for risk, needs, and barriers to treatment success. Juvenile drug courts in general were not adhering to evidence-based practices,” the 2015 OJJDP study concluded. Of the nine drug courts examined, only one showed significant reductions in recidivism rates.

Karli Keator

For this latest study, Harris, Karli Keator and Nicole Vincent-Roller from Policy Research Associates, and consultant Brooke Keefer viewed the report not as an indictment of the entire juvenile drug court program, but as an opportunity to fix what’s wrong. Based on their experiences in the field, they believed engaging family in the treatment was the best chance of keeping teens off drugs and preventing them from committing new crimes. But they wanted to find out if others working in the field felt the same way.  

So they put together a survey looking at everything from the number of full-time and part-time staff, the average age of those in juvenile drug court and many other factors. Harris said she and her colleagues were somewhat surprised by the number of courts and states responding, saying it showed that courts are seeking help in addressing substance use disorder among youth.

The survey found nearly 80 percent of youth in drug court had not committed any felony other than the underlying drug charge. These courts deal with youth age 13 up to nearly 18.

“The literature has shown a lot of success in adult drug court, but with youth — a population that would benefit greatly and has so much of their lives ahead of them — the results have not been as good,” Harris said.

Among the recommendations and resources offered to juvenile drug courts in the report:

  • A detailed self-assessment tool: “This exercise can help gauge where your program’s family engagement work stands, indicate areas for improvement, and validate existing efforts.”
  • Early engagement with the juvenile offenders and their families.
  • Regular feedback from the youth and their families.
  • Better training of staff and of the family and other adults who are influential in the teen’s life and can be brought into the engagement process.

The next step will be helping local drug courts enact some of the report’s recommendations, and to continue raising awareness of the need for family engagement in treatment plans, Harris said.

“The best efforts are always multipronged, and while enhancing family engagement should help improve outcomes, there is still a lot of work to be done to implement the recommendations,” Harris said. “And, of course, we will need to follow up and evaluate, to see what other prongs can be added based on what we see and hear in the field.”

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