Combating Delinquency: No Place Like Home

When it comes to combating delinquency, there’s no place like home. That’s what nine months investigating America’s juvenile crime problem for the American Youth Policy Forum revealed – with a little help from youth worker Patrick Lawler in Tennessee.

America’s juvenile justice systems spend most of their money locking adolescents in youth prisons (a.k.a. “training schools”) at $100 to $150 per day, or placing them in residential treatment programs at $200-plus per day. Yet three-fourths of all delinquent youth removed from their homes are not violent felons, and virtually every recidivism study finds that at least 50 to 70 percent of youth released from juvenile corrections institutions are later re-arrested. Likewise, 75 percent of youth placed in residential treatment are re-admitted to a residential facility or incarcerated within seven years.

Instead of removing troubled youths from their families, what if we kept them home when safety permits, and worked with their families to overcome problems and improve parenting? That’s what Lawler asked. The results speak volumes.

For 20 years Lawler has worked with delinquent and troubled youth as CEO of Youth Villages in Memphis. For most of that time, he says, “We were in the business of raising other people’s children. We believed that parents were the problem and we were the solution.”

Under Lawler, Youth Villages grew from 25 youth in three residences in 1980 to 240 youth in 23 residences 1993. But despite long stays in residential treatment, many young people relapsed into delinquency or other problem behaviors soon after leaving. Lawler’s agency was never punished, however, because Tennessee didn’t require residential treatment providers to monitor participants’ long-term success.

In 1993 Lawler hired an MBA candidate to examine his operation with fresh eyes. Not only were many Youth Villages grads failing, the study found, but the families of delinquent youth were often deeply troubled, and no one was helping them.

As a result, Lawler adopted a non-residential treatment model called Multisystemic Therapy; it has reduced future days in corrections or residential treatment by at least 47 percent in eight clinical trials. Then he adopted an Oregon-based program combining short-term foster care with intensive counseling for the youths’ families, followed by rapid reunification and ongoing counseling. This Oregon model reduced subsequent incarceration by 75 days per participant in a recent test, saving $14 in justice costs for each dollar spent.

Quickly, Youth Villages’ success rates climbed and costs plummeted. Over 80 percent of youth participating in the new programs (which cost as little as $6,000 per youth) continued to live successfully at home one year after treatment, compared to 63 percent of youth returned home from the old residential treatment program (costing over $50,000 for a typical 10-month stay).

Lawler next had to convince state bureaucrats to pay for the new programs. For two years they ignored his calls. Finally in 1995, with the election of a new governor and the state budget in deficit, Tennessee accepted Youth Villages’ offer to serve one-third more youth for the same money – including a first-ever guarantee of positive outcomes for youth following treatment. In return, Youth Villages could finally offer a continuum that included both home-based services and residential treatment.

This year, Youth Villages will serve 1,600 Tennessee youths – four times the number it served in 1993. Many will begin in residential treatment, but most will proceed quickly to family-focused non-residential therapy. More than 80 percent will remain home successfully for at least nine months. Tennessee, having learned its lesson, has made Youth Villages the model for all contracts for serving troubled adolescents.

In neighboring Arkansas, however, state rules still forbid payments for most home-based services. Arkansas contracts with Youth Villages to care for troubled adolescents, but it pays more to reap less safety and less success. There, as in most of the country, the lesson remains unheard: When it comes to stemming delinquency, there’s no place like home.

Dick Mendel is the author of “Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime, What Works – and What Doesn’t,” published by the American Youth Policy Forum. Contact: ramendel@aol.com.


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