Family Therapy Aims to Keep Youth Out of Legal System

Functional Family Therapy

In 2014, SaintA became a provider of a highly specialized family therapy called Functional Family Therapy (FFT). SaintA provides this service in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) and has seen positive results for at-risk youth and their siblings.

DCF Secretary Eloise Anderson, along with Police Chief Edward Flynn, chose the FFT model as a means to decrease recidivism in youth offenders in the city of Milwaukee and break the cycle of emotional and behavioral issues within families. Initially, part of the SAFE Milwaukee initiative, SaintA FFT provides interventions for at-risk youth between the ages of 11-18 years old and their families.

Families may be referred by the Milwaukee County Delinquency Division, Division of Milwaukee Child Protective Services, or a number of community partners, including Milwaukee Public Schools and mental health facilities. Self-referrals are also allowed.

“This service is free to families who qualify, so cost doesn’t have to be a concern to families,” explains Crystal Simpson, SaintA Functional Family Therapy Program Manager.

Short-Term Program, Long-Term Results

The purpose of FFT is to engage adolescents and their entire families to help them overcome risky behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, missed curfews, anger, and other issues that can lead to involvement in the juvenile and legal systems. Some youth have stolen cars or been party to a crime; others are a high run-away risk or have truancy problems.

Interventions are also used to help ensure younger siblings don’t become offenders by following the path of an older sibling.

One thing that sets this therapy apart is that it’s intended to be a short-term service with long-term impact. “We look at what’s happening in the family, right now, and start working on skills and tools that can keep families moving forward long after FFT formally ends,” explains Simpson.

Structure of Functional Family Therapy: Three Phases

“We work to improve any family dynamics that may contribute to youth offenses,” explains Sonja Kania, Director of Family Services. “This is not just about the youth or just the parents, it’s always the family.”

One rule of Functional Family Therapy is all family members must be present for each meeting. This inspires open communication and eliminates unintentional triangulation, wherein one person speaks through the therapist rather than directly to their loved one. “My daughter is beginning to grow and acknowledge me as her mother,” said one parent as they were going through FFT together.

There are three phases to Functional Family Therapy. In Phase One, the therapist meets with the family three times in 10 days to start engagement and help motivate them to make necessary changes.

Phase Two is where behavior changes are taught and skill development begins. “Our therapist has been so encouraging – and patient – with us,” says another parent. “Our bond is strong.”

Phase Three puts new skills and behaviors into practice both inside and outside the home with a focus on relapse prevention. “We do 30- 60- and 90-day check-ins, but by Phase Three, families will have successfully been discharged and have the tools to manage behaviors,” says Simpson.

For more about the practice of FFT, read “Family Therapy Program Bringing Results.”

Positive Outcomes for Participants

“The primary goal of FFT is to decrease recidivism and keep at-risk youth and their younger siblings off the path to delinquency,” says Kania. “We also want to try and maintain youth in the family setting and prevent any out of home removals or placements.”

From April 1, 2014 through March 31, 2016, the first two years of the program, FFT saw some very promising results:

  • On average, 98% of the youth who completed the FFT program remained living at home at the time of discharge.
  • Similarly, an average of 98% of youth who completed the program were also enrolled in some type of educational or vocational programming at the time of discharge.
  • Since completion of the program, 82% of youth who completed the program have not had any new offenses or re-offenses.
  • Also, since completion of the program, 91% siblings of the target youth have not had any new offenses or re-offenses

“As we conclude our third year as an FFT provider, they will be closely monitoring outcomes for our youth, siblings and families to ensure the program continues to create stable, successful households,” says Kania.

Youth Assessment Tool Also Shows Good Results

The Youth Assessment and Screening Instrument (YASI) provides case workers with a profile of risks, needs, strengths, and protective factors for each youth involved in delinquency. YASI is completed by juvenile justice youth care workers after interviews with the youth and their family and in consultation with other collateral sources.

The outcomes for the YASI scores for youth who successfully completed Functional Family Therapy in its first two years (ending March 31, 2016) are as follows:

  • 100% improvement in family functioning
  • 87% improvement in developing protective factors (resilience; coping skills; support)
  • 74% reduction in AODA use (self-reported by youth)
  • 67% improvement in reducing risk factors (poor family dynamics; abuse; parenting)

Beginning in 2016, SAFE Milwaukee began quarterly reporting and the SaintA FFT YASI scores from the 4th Quarter of 2016 showed continue improvements in reducing risk factors such as abuse, as well as reducing the use of drugs and alcohol. The former jumped from 74% to 90% and the latter from 67% to 83%. Meanwhile, the improvement rates for developing family functioning and protective factors such as resilience were down slightly in Q4 of last year.

Building on family strengths is at the core of Functional Family Therapy. Support may also come from social workers, school staff, human services case managers and the police department.

To make a referral, please contact Crystal Simpson, Functional Family Therapy Program Manager at 414.465.1341 or or Sonja Kania, Director of Family Services at 414.465.1358 or

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