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Intervening for Positive Change in At-Risk Youths
Intervening for Positive Change in At-Risk Youths

Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, is said to have wrote: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Reclaiming Futures is an initiative with the goal of helping justice-involved youth with mental health and substance abuse disorders change their direction by working with communities to affect positive changes in the form of integrated, community-based substance abuse interventions in juvenile justice systems.

Reclaiming Futures, which has its national office in the Regional Research Institute at Portland State University, began in 2001 with a $21 million grant from initiative partner the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The grant provided for establishment of 10 pilot sites that developed a six-step model to unite juvenile justice systems, mental health and substance abuse treatment and community members to help justice-involved teens end substance abuse and change their lives for the better. Over the past 11 years, the Reclaiming Futures model has expanded into 37 communities in 18 states with partners that include the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment and Portland State University to name a few.

“There is a problem in juvenile justice systems,” Susan Richardson, National Executive Director of Reclaiming Futures, said. “A tremendous gap exists in treatment for teens with substance abuse and mental health issues.”

Studies have shown that one in five youths in the juvenile justice system has a substance abuse disorder, many have mental health disorders and some contend with both. For any number of reasons, juvenile justice systems all over the country do not have programs or policies in place to identify, treat, monitor and mentor these youths. Where programs are in place it is often difficult to determine how effective efforts are. The Reclaiming Futures model combines the capabilities of juvenile justice systems with youth appropriate substance abuse and mental health treatment and positive community engagement. The goal is helping justice-involved youths learn to avoid alcohol and drug abuse and stay out of the legal system in the future. Reclaiming Futures’ method of achieving this goal is to give aid to communities implementing a proven six-step model and then to provide those communities with tools and continuing assistance.

“Treatment is better than detention and incarceration,” Richardson said. “That is the whole premise of Reclaiming Futures. We go to the main source where teens can be identified at a salient time in their lives when they’ve intersected with the law and we try to help them out of the system and back to a healthy life in the community.”

The six-step model of intervention is the primary tool Reclaiming Futures provides to communities seeking to reform drug and alcohol treatment practices in their juvenile justice systems. The model involves determining a teen’s eligibility for intervention, an assessment of the teen’s condition, coordination of services, the initiation of service and service contact to assure the teen is participating in the program, and finally assisting the teen’s transition from substance abuse to a healthy lifestyle within the community.

“Judicial leadership, community engagement, and the teams that work with the kids are critical to our model,” Richardson said, “as is the best science in treating adolescents with substance abuse and mental health disorders.”

“The model is meant to put a logical system of treatment in place,” added Jim Carlton, Deputy Director of Reclaiming Futures. “The sites we work with want to make systemic improvements; we help them implement changes and offer evidence-based tools that have been shown to be reliable."

Reclaiming Futures also works with communities to assure reforms are successful. If a community lacks funding to implement the six-step model, Reclaiming Futures can help them find grants. The Reclaiming Futures website offers current and potential sites tools, publications, webinars, stories and other materials. The website is also the place where communities, public agencies, policymakers, and foundations interested in bringing Reclaiming Futures into their juvenile justice systems can visit for information on how to implement the six-step model.

In keeping with its mission “to improve the health and health care of all Americans,” the RWJF recently gifted the Reclaiming Futures model trademark to Portland State University. The trademark allows Reclaiming Futures to pursue a sustainable method for future operations and that means working with communities from across the country to implement the six-step model, which in turn could help thousands of at-risk youths turn their lives around.

“Trademark licensing is an excellent tool that can allow PSU projects like Reclaiming Futures to maintain a sustainable standard among users and practitioners of the project’s results,” said Joe Janda, Director of the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property at PSU. “With trademark licensing IIP can take successful, proven projects like the Reclaiming Futures model beyond the walls of the University where they can have the greatest impact.”

The impact is apparent at the Reclaiming Futures website where visitors can view teens telling their own stories about hope, their struggles with alcohol, drugs, crime and the strength they found while turning their lives around. Thanks to the Reclaiming Futures model, communities from across the country have begun assessing for and treating substance abuse and mental health disorders in their juvenile justice systems and allowing fewer kids to fall through cracks in the system.

“Drug and alcohol addiction is robbing us of a future and we are on the front lines with communities trying to make a difference, trying to save young peoples’ lives,” Richardson said.

“But when you meet these kids that have put so much into turning their lives around and you hear their stories, you can’t help but be moved and amazed,” Carlton added.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted November 11, 2012