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Multi-dimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC) for young offenders: comparing young people referred to MTFC in England and the USA


Background. This paper reports on an ongoing evaluation of Multi-dimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC) in England. MTFC was developed at the Oregon Social Learning Centre in the USA and is currently being piloted both with adolescents in the youth justice system and, separately, with those in the child welfare system in England. This paper focuses on early findings from the evaluation of the MTFC pilot programme delivered to young people in the English youth justice system.

Purpose. The paper presents baseline findings from the ongoing evaluation of the MTFC pilot programme in England delivered to serious and persistent young offenders who are at risk of custody. It has two aims:

(1) To describe the characteristics, circumstances and histories of a group of severely troubled and troublesome young people in England who are in, or at risk of, custody.

 (2) To compare the characteristics of the English sample to the samples of delinquent youth studied in evaluations of MTFC in the USA and to explore the issues involved in implementing and evaluating an evidence-based intervention, designed for one context, in a very different context.

Methods. The English study of the MTFC pilot programme for young offenders is a case control study which employs both quantitative and qualitative methods. It aims to evaluate whether MTFC is more effective in preventing re-offending than the use of custody. The study's principal outcome measures are the frequency and severity of re-offending at 12 month follow-up. It will also examine whether MTFC reduces time to re-offending, the use of custody and days in custody, compared with the alternative custodial sentence. Additional outcome measures include changes in emotional and behavioural problems, in general social functioning and in participation in education, employment and training.

Baseline data from the English study. The study is taking place in three local areas. A group of 17 young people sentenced to MTFC were matched to 26 who met the eligibility criteria for this intervention, that is, they had been sentenced to custody and professionals had serious concerns about the influence of family and lifestyle factors. The mean age of the sample was 15 years (ranging from 12-17 years) and 86% were male.

Analysis of baseline data indicated that the groups were well-matched in most respects, including their mean age, criminal histories (e.g. age at first conviction), number of previous offences and the seriousness of past and current offences (measured using standardised government gravity scores). They were also well matched in respect of family, lifestyle and other factors. However there were clear differences in criminal histories at area level, indicative of considerable local variation in the rapidity with which young people are drawn into the formal youth justice system.

The majority experienced high levels of family risk including inconsistent supervision, parental failure to show care, criminal activity and substance abuse by family members. Two-thirds of the young people had experienced abuse and/or neglect and nearly two-thirds had attempted suicide in the past six months. Those with experience of abuse or neglect were significantly more likely to have attempted suicide or to have self-harmed in the previous six months. Over one third had previously been in care at some time and nearly one-quarter had recent experience of care. In the six months prior to sentence 38% had not lived with either parent and 58% had had no contact with their fathers.

Half of the young people were physically aggressive. The majority (70%) had pro-criminal peers and many lacked non-criminal friends. Two-thirds were known to have used drugs and nearly half were known to have misused alcohol in the previous six months. Nearly one third had literacy and/or numeracy problems and less than half of those of school age were attending school.

Comparison with the US studies of MTFC. This paper will compare the characteristics and circumstances of the English sample with the samples of delinquent youth studied in the evaluations of MTFC in the USA. It will explore the nuances of implementing and evaluating an evidence-based model developed for a particular population in one country (in this case, the USA), in a different cultural and institutional context.

Key references

Chamberlain, P. & Reid, J. (1998). Comparison of two community alternatives to incarceration for chronic juvenile offenders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 6, 624-633.

Contact: Nina Biehal, University of York, SPRU, Alcuin College B Block, University of York, York YO10 5DD, England, E-mail: nb6@york.ac.uk, Phone + 44 (0) 1904 321284.

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