• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 11th May, 2010

Family therapy may offer young sex offenders rescue

US developers of the program have published evidence in the Journal of Family Psychology, to demonstrate that Multisystemic Therapy (MST) can provide effective treatment for the neglected problem of juvenile sex offending. The findings suggest that similar evidence-based programs such as Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) might also have potential. It’s all down to the versatility of the family systems approach, says Elizabeth Letourneau, assistant professor in the Family Services Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. Much of the activity around teenage antisocial behavior has focused on drinking, drugs, violence and aggression. Criminal sexual behavior, while associated with substantial financial and social costs to victims and perpetrators alike, has not been such a popular issue among prevention scientists. Research has shown that the family and social characteristics of violent young people are similar to those of juvenile sex offenders. They include poor communication with and supervision by parents, and also involvement with antisocial peers. Such characteristics fit the theory of behavior underpinning the MST approach which it locates in the context of the family, school or neighborhood. To improve behavior it may be necessary to intervene in any one or all of these systems. For example, ineffective parenting may lead to a young person spending periods of time with antisocial peers who may then propel him toward antisocial behavior. So a multisystemic therapist might deliver individual sessions with the parents to improve their parenting practices and organize activities with prosocial peers in community groups to help steer the child away from his deviant peer network.The ultimate aim is to equip parents with the skills they require to set appropriate boundaries, as well as to identify and address any difficulties their children might be experiencing. MST is also designed to empower young people to cope better themselves.To test whether the program’s good results with anti-social young people would be repeated with sex offenders, Letourneau’s team randomly allocated 127 young people charged with a sexual offence either to MST or “services as usual”. The latter usually involved offenders participating in a treatment group that was likely to focus on deviant arousal, victim empathy, relapse prevention and a variety of other topics. The randomized controlled trial demonstrated that MST was able to reduce sexual behavior problems as well as delinquency to a significantly greater degree. Letourneau reports that “the present findings are congruent with the growing consensus that family-focused interventions targeting multiple ecological systems are among the most supported interventions for serious behavior problems, including child sexual behavior problems”. See: Letourneau, E et al (2009) “Multisystemic Therapy for Juvenile Sexual Offenders: 1-year results from a randomized effectiveness trial”, Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 1, pp 89-102Blueprints

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