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Insight: Putting The Lives Of Broken Children Back Together

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DAVID ALLEN, M.D., M.P.H.

By Farrah Johnson

fjohnson@tribunemedia.net

WHILE children who have suffered from abuse and trauma are more likely to become violent adults, studies prove that early intervention can decrease the likelihood of them spiralling into a life of crime and violence.

Last week, The Tribune reported that a significant portion of adolescents who are brought before the courts for minor infractions suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The findings came from a pilot study conducted by leading psychiatrist David F Allen and local colleagues, who sought to intervene in the lives of troubled adolescents.

In 2016, the authors recruited youth between the ages of 10-15 who were involved in misdemeanours such as bullying and gangs and turf wars. Since then, their group therapy programme: The Family: People Helping People Project, has produced noteworthy changes in the lives of the participants, who came from “non-existent or extremely chaotic” family lives.

A cohort of 23 court-ordered adolescents took the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). The results showed that 52 percent of the adolescents suffered from moderate to severe depression involving “deep-seated anger and rage”. The test also showed that 17 percent of the participants suffered from borderline clinical depression, while nine percent showed signs of a mild mood disturbance and 22 percent had normal ups and downs.

The study noted that all of these scores proved the adolescents involved in the programme had “significant levels of PTSD and depression”. It also highlighted five specific case studies that supported their findings. In the first case, a 13-year-old girl received the highest score for the PTSD Self-Test. Her BDI results also indicated that she was severely depressed and showed signs of “strong suicidal ideation.” She was referred to the programme by her mother because of her history with self-harm.

A 16-year-old boy’s results for the PTSD questionnaire revealed he was suffering “severely” from the disorder. The young man, who was referred to the programme by the courts for fighting, also scored 40 on his BDI, which indicated he was suffering from severe depression. The authors believed the boy’s Haitian ancestry might have been a “contributing factor” to his depression.

In the third case, a 14-year-old girl scored 12 on the PTSD questionnaire and 23 on her BDI. These results suggested she was suffering from moderate depression. The facilitators, who were trained in psychotherapy, also noted that the girl was “extremely impulsive and could easily self-destruct if not encouraged to change.”

A 15-year-old male scored 11 on the PTSD Self-Test. His score indicated that he was “severely traumatized.” During the programme, the boy also did not seem to understand the “danger and vulnerability of his behaviour’. The authors noted the boy had “explosive anger and expressed no remorse” for harming others.

In the fifth case, a 14-year-old male scored nine on the PTSD Questionnaire and 20 on the BDI. These scores indicated he was suffering from borderline clinical depression. The young man also appeared to be very angry. The authors noted that his two brothers had been murdered and he was a gang leader who had a “cruel revenge streak”.

The results of the study proved that most of the adolescents in the court-ordered programme were born into difficult circumstances and had estranged or non-existent relationships with their parents. The programme also confirmed many of the participants’ choices were influenced by friends or gang members.

Still, the authors note that since the People Helping People Project’s inception, 49 adolescents have fulfilled its requirements and have been released from their legal obligations.

“Thirty eight of the adolescents or their parents or guardians were contacted via telephone and asked a series of questions,” the authors reported in their follow-up study. “Eighty four percent of those contacted indicated that since their release from the programme, they had not had any trouble with the law and almost 50 percent of them were able to secure employment.

“Only 37-percent of them were still enrolled in secondary school, some had left and others had graduated. Of particular note is that one participant had a grade point average (GPA) of 1.70 when he first started the programme. Since successfully completing the programme, he has graduated from secondary school and according to his stepmother, he graduated with a 3.75.”

According to the authors, 76 percent of the adolescents involved in the programme said they no longer struggled with substance abuse. Still, they noted that one parent reported that her son was addicted to smoking cigarettes and another mother revealed that her son had to be “admitted to the state mental hospital for severe cocaine abuse.”

“Eight seven percent of the adolescents said since their release from the programme, they have had better decision making, anger management skills, and were better able to manage their emotions,” the authors revealed.

“Seventy six percent said they now made better choices in terms of friends and 76 percent also reported that they had not experienced any trauma since being released. However, one individual said there was a death in his family, another said he was almost ganged up by a group of men, and a third said there was a murder in his home.”

When questioned about their personal improvements, many of the adolescents reported that they noticed that they had more interest in setting goals and attending church. Others also said they noticed that they had become less angry, were more respectable and helped out more.

“According to Lewis there is a direct correlation between serious child hood abuse and murder in later teenage years,” the authors noted.

“Therefore by simulating a positive family, The Family: People Helping People Project is an effective resocialisation intervention based on empirical data. Research studies carried out on participants in The Family Project provided evidence that participants had a significant decrease in feelings of depression, suicidality, anger, and vengefulness. Involvement in illegal activity and abusive relationships also decreased and there were significant increases in intimacy with others, self-esteem, benevolence, quality of family relationships, gratitude and forgiveness.”

Social Intervention for Court Ordered Adolescents - The Family: People Helping People Project

David F. Allen, Keva Bethell, Denie Fountain and Marie Allen Carroll

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