Two Major Juvenile Research Ventures Point to Drug Treatment

Last week, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention published some findings about the persistence of mental health problems among juveniles who were detained at Cook County’s detention center (Chicago area).

Part of the Northwestern Juvenile Justice Project, the study followed for years a group of detained offenders who were released between 1995 and 1998.

The research caught the attention of Youth Services Insider because of some findings on substance abuse that seem to line up with another major study that followed juvenile offenders for years: the Pathways to Desistance Study, which tracked juveniles convicted of felony offenses in Philadelphia and Phoenix.

The Northwestern study found that among the juveniles who were diagnosed with mood disorders, more than 80 percent did not struggle with those conditions five years later. But more than a third of males with substance use disorders continued to struggle with drugs.

The Pathways to Desistance study continues to produce spin-off research, including a recent look at how policing strategies and length of stay influence desistance. But the earliest results posted by Pathways found that where a juvenile was placed for rehabilitation – community, residential or secure settings – was not predictive of whether he or she continued to offend.

There was one course of action that Pathways did say had a notable effect on re-offending: family-involved drug therapy. More than a third of males and females followed by Pathways had a diagnosable drug or alcohol dependency, and family-involved drug treatment was the one strategy associated with lower future offending.

We are by no means making an apples-to-apples comparison with the two pieces of research. Northwestern looked at detained youths, many of whom were probably released in days or weeks. Everyone involved in the Pathways study was convicted of a serious offense.

But the data about substance use does seem to point from different directions at a high value for meaningful substance abuse intervention in (or in tandem with) the juvenile justice system.

On the one hand: Juveniles suffering from substance use disorders continue to struggle years after their point of detention. On the other: Family-involved drug therapy is on a short list of things that have any discernable impact on future offending.

We asked researchers from both projects about the connection.

Karen Abram, Northwestern: “I agree that this supports the Pathways research,” she said, in a phone interview with YSI. “We hope to look a little more at the role of family, and yes, all the evidence shows that family-based interventions work.”

Ed Mulvey, Pathways: “I think that [Northwestern’s] results line up with what we see in Pathways,” he said, in an e-mail conversation with YSI.

Mulvey also lamented the lack of impact any of this research seemed to be having thus far, describing the provision of family drug therapy at any point in the juvenile justice system as “unimpressive.”

“It seems striking to me that we know substance use is related to offending and that it can be treated if we invest in the right forms of treatment…yet we somehow don’t get it to happen,” Mulvey said.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.