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Collaborative family work in youth justice

Chris Trotter explains the collaborative family work model in youth justice in HMI Probation Academic Insights series.

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A collaborative problem-solving approach

The latest in the probation inspectorate’s Academic Insights series looks at Collaborative Family Work in Youth Justice.  Published on 26 February 2021 and authored by Professor Chris Trotter, Emeritus Professor at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, the briefingfocuses upon the Collaborative Family Work approach, designed to be undertaken in the family home by youth justice workers either individually or with the support of another worker. A collaborative problem-solving approach is employed with a number of strength-based activities and deliberate reinforcement of pro-social comments and actions.

Background

Professor Trotter starts with a rapid review of the research evidence on the effectiveness of family interventions for children in the criminal justice system. Overall, there is a solid evidence base to demonstrate that good quality family interventions are effective in reducing reoffending. However, despite the research support for family interventions, they seem to be relatively rare in criminal justice settings. Specific interventions focused on issues such as drug treatment, anger management or employment are more common. Where family interventions are offered in youth justice, they tend to be delivered by licenced therapists trained in specific models such as multi-systemic family therapy or functional family therapy. However, this paper focuses on project that uses youth justice workers to deliver a family intervention – Collaborative Family Work. This work is designed to be delivered as part of the routine offerings of a youth justice service.

The approach

Professor Trotter who is an expert in Collaborative Family Work sets out the approach which by youth justice workers either individually or with the support of another worker. It is usually conducted over about six sessions but may be as short as a single session if this is appropriate. The model has been used in Australia and the UK in youth justice and in non-government organisations which offer services to children in the criminal justice system. The model involves working through a six-step problem solving model:

1) the youth justice workers ask the family members to identify and agree on ground rules for the conduct of sessions
2) they then help participants to identify issues of concern for them or things they would like to change
3) the family members then decide which issues or problems to work on first
4) they reach agreement on goals
5) they explore the issues in some depth
6) they develop strategies to achieve the goals.

Workers use the acronym RIDGES to remind them of the six steps:

The intervention also includes a number of strength-based activities and deliberate reinforcement by workers of pro-social comments and actions by both children and family members. Rating scales are used to monitor the progress of the family against problems which have been identified and against general family functioning. The sessions often include exercises such as: role playing on alternative methods of family interaction; or providing structured opportunities for family members to provide positive feedback to each other.

Evaluation

A recent Australian impact evaluation of the Collaborative Family Work approach which included a two-year follow-up component found that children who completed the family work had significantly longer time to first offence and had lower rates of reoffending and custodial sentences than the control groups. For those families who undertook the work at home, the results were particularly positive. The two-year sentenced to custody rate for children who completed the work in the family home was only 14% compared to 25% or more for each of the control groups.

As Professor Trotter concludes, the main challenge now is to get Youth Offending Teams to make more use of family work, particularly proven models such as Collaborative Family Work.

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