Functional Family Therapy Benefits At-Risk Youth Offenders

Adolescents involved in the justice system are clinically complex, with particularly high rates of behavior problems, mental health disorders, and other ‘at-risk’ behaviors,” said Thomas Sexton of the Center for Adolescent and Family Studies at Indiana University. “Estimates are that 50% to 80% of delinquent adolescents meet the criteria for a mental disorder, such as conduct or substance-related disorders.” Sexton and his colleague Charles Turner at the Center for Family and Adolescent Research at Oregon Research Institute believe that Functional Family Therapy (FFT), as evidenced in previous research, could provide an effective intervention for these adolescents if applied in a community setting. They said, “The positive outcomes of FFT remain relatively stable even after a 5-year follow-up, and the positive impact also affects siblings of the identified adolescent.”

To test their theory, the researchers enlisted 917 families who had an adolescent member sentenced to probation for a crime. The majority of the offenders were male, nearly 80%, and all were between 13 and 17 years of age. The researchers tested the effectiveness of FFT one year after treatment, compared to traditional probation services. Additionally, they evaluated the level of adherence to the FFT model as it related to positive outcomes. “The findings suggest that FFT was effective in reducing youth behavioral problems, although only when the therapists adhered to the treatment model,” said the team. “High-adherent therapists delivering FFT had a statistically significant reduction of (35%) in felony, a (30%) violent crime, and a marginally significant reduction (21%) in misdemeanor recidivisms, as compared to the control condition. The results represent a significant reduction in serious crimes 1 year after treatment, when delivered by a model adherent therapist.” The researchers also noted that adherence to the model was especially important in highly negative family situations. They added, “The findings suggest that a model like FFT must be delivered in a clinically specific and precise manner to produce positive outcomes.”

Sexton, Thomas, and Charles W. Turner. “The Effectiveness of Functional Family Therapy for Youth with Behavioral Problems in a Community Practice Setting.” Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice 1.(S) (2011): 3-15. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • ellen


    August 29th, 2011 at 4:00 PM

    and how many of these families do you think are really going to hold up their end of the bargain when they get out of the therapy setting and into the real world? if they had been able to do that in the first place the kids might not have grown up to be criminal offenders.

  • Ronan


    August 29th, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    This is good news.And the right approach too.Its no use just announcing punishments for these kids under 18.This approach will not only show them what they did was wrong but will help them and prevet them from doing something wrong again.

  • harvey birch

    harvey birch

    September 10th, 2011 at 4:33 PM

    Anything that helps problematic children and stops them breaking the law is an excellent way to go. Some young adults have behavior issues that they can’t deal with without professional help and that’s okay. It happens and nobody is perfect.

    But none of them should be able to use it as an excuse for getting away with criminal acts, so let’s keep up with letting them know that the law is the law. They can get professional help in jail the same as they can out of it, if not more. Probation is not a deterrent.

  • Samuel Swartz

    Samuel Swartz

    September 15th, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    Forgive me for being a naysayer but I don’t see how this could be so effective. These at-risk youth offenders are stereotypically stubborn and don’t get along with their families well. I couldn’t see why they would want to have a functional family. In their mind they probably feel that their parents were the ones that are dysfunctional not themselves.

    These kids probably feel like they have already tried everything to maintain a healthy functional family but all their attempts have failed. And now think that there isn’t any hope for their family to come together again just like old times.

    But this study says otherwise so I guess I’m wrong!

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