Functional Family Therapy – Two Days of Insight and Inspiration

by Communications Manager, Henwood Trust, 11 March 2011

I’m rounding off day two of a huge and inspirational learning curve. I’m in unfamiliar territory, at a Marae in the Waikato, mixing with a team of about 25 of the most committed, smart, streetwise, passionate people I’ve seen for quite a while. Most are youngish family people.

They’re Functional Family Therapists. They’re among the 140-strong team of the Youth Horizons Trust. They come from backgrounds like psychology, social work and mental health.

Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is an evidence-based system of intervention for at-risk young people. Kids with problems that include absconding, truancy, alcohol and substance abuse, petty crime and the like. Often – very often - these kids come from families with a history of dysfunction and failure. Without help they easily drift to become the next generation of hard core criminals.

Intervention through FFT can change all that to the benefit of the individual, the entire family, and society overall. It can break multi-generational cycles of dysfunction.

The guest presenter at this week’s session is Kellie Armey, a highly-respected practitioner from Ohio who has been to New Zealand helping the Youth Horizons team previously. Kellie’s a very personable and credible advocate for FFT who’s spent her social work career working with at risk young people, mostly among street kids and homeless. She stresses that the best way to deal with the kids is by working with the whole family.

“Target the whole family,” she urges the group. “Teach them the skills they don’t have – how to deal with one another and the outside world. Increase their hope; decrease the negativity. Slowly remove the risk factors. Don’t you try to solve the problems for them; teach them the skills to find the solutions themselves.”

Later Kellie shows a video of a FFT therapist at work with a family in the US. Together, they are making a list of ways to improve their interactions during stress. “No yelling” and “no running away” seem sensible enough, and “no eye-rolling” even gets a tentative laugh.

I reflect that there are plenty of “ordinary” well-adjusted families who could use such pragmatic guidance. To the social group that Youth Horizons is helping, it can be life-changing.

The work has real pressures – totally different to those people like me experience in our sedentary, desk-bound, safe occupations.

I ask a few of the Youth Horizons people whether they ever feel physically endangered when going into homes where not every member necessarily welcomes the process with open arms. There are nods all round – I hear tales of one therapist trying to help the main group of the family while one member was outside threatening her car with a sledgehammer. Another, of a pregnant FFT worker who was threatened with a knife. A third soldiering on with the therapy while drugs sat openly on the table. It’s no picnic out there – a “bad day at work” for one of these guys is a lot tougher than anything most of us experience - yet this is a highly stable workforce that never seems to waver.

And we’d all better hope they get it right. A great deal of New Zealand’s law and order, the social cohesion of our disadvantaged communities, and the future of our “at risk” young people hangs on their work.

Over the coming months I’ll be tracking this team. I’ll interview some of them, both operational level and management, and post what I learn here on this blog. New Zealanders in all walks need to know more about the root causes of youth offending, and the importance of finding constructive forms of intervention.

As someone said to me this week, locking them all away together only serves to introduce the next generation of criminals to one another at an ever-earlier age. There must be, and are, more effective alternatives. FFT is but one.

Opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Henwood Trust nor its Trustees.

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