Fixing the Cracks 

Pilot program for youth offenders saves families—and money

When it comes to treating juvenile offenders who suffer from mental disabilities—and experts now agree that as many as 95 percent of them do—Dr. Craig Walker believes that it’s time to start thinking outside the box.

“You’ve got a lot of ‘box’ thinkers all the way through the system,” says Walker, a clinical psychologist and juvenile justice expert in Kalispell. “The idea that we send the kid a message by locking him up for six months and charging taxpayers $40,000 kind of escapes me.”

Which is why Walker is working to move these kids out of the box, literally, from juvenile detention facilities back into their homes. In the process he’s also reducing their rates of recidivism and first-time incarceration, and saving the state tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in out-of-home placements.

The program is known as Multisystemic Therapy (MST), an 18-month pilot project funded by the Montana Board of Crime Control. Using a model proved to be successful on the East Coast as well as other countries, MST is based on the philosophy that the best place to treat most juvenile offenders is in their own communities.

In many respects, MST treats the system as well as the child, using social structures already in place to reduce the risk factors of criminal behavior. Rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach, MST therapists go into the home, the school and the neighborhood to target kids who would otherwise end up behind bars.

“I would say that 85 percent of my time is spent working at the family-assistance level,” says Josh Leblang, a therapist in the Kalispell MST program. “We’re working to empower the parents to make the decisions, and keep the decision-making away from juvenile justice.”

Far from taking a warm and fuzzy approach to juvenile crime, MST allows its therapists to use only scientifically proven and goal-oriented methods.

“MST is putting the county and state people on the same sheet of music,” says Walker. “It’s putting therapists in the business of supervising families and making sure the families, youth court and schools are working in concert.”

The Kalispell program was launched about a year ago and is the first time that MST has been tried in Montana. So far the program, also known as Family Preservation Therapy, has lived up to its name: Of the 18 juveniles who have gone through MST since April, 14 are still at home with their families and have avoided first-time or repeated incarceration. In contrast, the national recidivism rate for juvenile offenders averages about 80 percent.

Keep in mind that the Kalispell MST program handles some of the most difficult youth offenders in the juvenile correctional system. According to Walker, at least 80 percent of them have already been diagnosed with some mental disorder, and 50 percent of them are on medication. On average, the youths have already spent about a year in correctional facilities, with the longest stay being more than seven years.

According to Mary Fay, probation and parole bureau chief for the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC), Kalispell was chosen for this pilot project because it has fewer resources for juvenile offenders compared to other cities in Montana, a higher incidence of youths in correctional facilities and a higher rate of out-of-home placement for juvenile probation.

In fact, the Kalispell project is the first MST program in the nation to treat juvenile parolees—youths who have already been incarcerated—as well as probationers—those who have been adjudicated but not incarcerated. And while treating parolees takes longer than treating probationers, MST remains a cost-effective alternative to incarceration.

For example, while MST costs the state about $30 per youth per day, Fay says that the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility costs $145 per day, and the Riverside Youth Correctional Facility about $188 per day. Translated over the length of the program, MST runs about $10,000 to $12,000 per parolee, and as little as $6,000 to $7,000 per probationer. In contrast, the DOC’s least expensive youth parolee costs the state $22,000, and the highest more than $500,000.

“This is the first attempt to look at the business sense of sending these kids away,” says Dr. Marlene Snyder, a juvenile justice expert hired by the DOC to evaluate the effectiveness of MST. “It’s kind of like looking at a house. Is it going to pay in the long-run to put a new roof on your house or not?”

More importantly, Snyder has found that MST has been successful at keeping families intact while their kids are still “dancing close to the fire but before they get burned.” Her research has found that many of these families have been asking for help for years, only to be frustrated by a system ill-equipped to address their children’s mental health needs.

“Our mental health system and educational systems aren’t really friendly to children with mental health difficulties,” says Snyder. “We were handed the system as they are now. It’s not our obligation to keep perpetuating things that don’t work.”

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