Tailored Functional Family Therapy Program Shows Promise for Reducing Subsequent Criminal Activity in a Population at High Risk for Joining Gangs

A rigorous trial application of Functional Family Therapy to youth at risk of gang involvement, or already involved, finds promising outcome and cost advantages.

Street gang membership typically only lasts a year or two, but that passing involvement can cause profound harm. Gangs and their members are disproportionately responsible for violent, property, and drug offenses, taking an unrelenting toll on society.

In the near term, adolescents in gangs tend to be alienated from school and work, are more likely to become a teen parent, and tend to identify with negative peers while living their lives in anger, studies have established. Later, in their twenties and thirties, they tend to face greater economic hardship and family problems, worse health, more substance abuse, and more criminal activity leading to higher incarceration rates.

Despite the patent benefits of helping vulnerable adolescents find a path away from gangs, to date there have been no rigorous evaluations of therapeutic programs aimed at an urban, predominantly minority population at high risk of gang involvement or currently involved in gangs.  A recent randomized control trial – a first for a gang-focused intervention evaluation – found that it is possible to prevent subsequent criminal activity in a population that is at high risk for joining gangs using a version of Functional Family Therapy (FFT) tailored to youth who are gang-involved or deemed to be at risk for gang involvement. (FFT is a short-term, family-based program model for at-risk youth that focuses on addressing risk and protective factors.) Researchers from the University of Maryland and Temple University, in partnership with the Philadelphia Family Court, conducted the trial with a grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The researchers also found a cost savings.

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The research team modified the standard FFT manual to tailor the program to address issues common to the gang population. It was designed to cover 12-15 family therapy sessions over three months. Researchers randomly assigned adjudicated delinquent youth, who had been ordered to receive “family services,” to the special “FFT-G” (G for Gang) program or to a control group receiving treatment as usual, which involved probation and alternative family therapy called the Family Therapy Treatment Program (FTTP).

The study was designed to gain knowledge about how to stop at-risk youth from becoming gang members and how to diminish delinquency among gang members. Before the study, FFT had shown effectiveness, the research team said, but FFT studies of U.S. populations had seldom involved predominantly minority samples. The study “was intended to provide a rigorous test of FFT under contemporary natural conditions, with an urban, predominantly minority population selected for its high risk of gang involvement.”

The study population consisted of males, age 11 to 17, with data collected from 2013 to 2016. Data were collected from four primary sources:

  • Interviews at intake and six months after randomization.
  • Court records reflecting contacts with the court system.
  • Data on community services received and their cost.
  • Model fidelity and adherence data from FFT LLC.

FFT-G was more successful at engaging youths in the program. Those in the FFT-G group received more intervention and were more likely to complete the program than youths in the control group. In the FFT-G group, 80 percent (53 cases) underwent at least one FFT-G session, and 53 percent (35 cases) completed the program. For the control group, program engagement was dramatically lower: only 17.5 percent (11 cases) of those referred received any FTTP.

The study concluded that the intervention was done with fidelity to the FFT-G model and that it was possible to prevent subsequent criminal activity in a population that is at high risk for joining gangs. Differences between the treatment and control groups generally began to emerge at later intervals. The researchers noted that, at the six-month randomization follow-up, there were no significant differences between the treatment and control groups on key indicators – for example, improved family functioning – of the primary outcomes, delinquency and substance abuse. Eighteen months following random assignment, the researchers found that those at highest risk of gang involvement showed significantly lower prevalence of: arrest, number of arrests, number of felony charges, crimes against person charges, and property crime charges; and they were less likely to be adjudicated delinquent.

A number of youths in the study received social services beyond those provided by FFT-G or FTTP. Promisingly, the researchers found that the cost of all social services received over six months was $10,197 per youth receiving FFT-G versus $12,368 for those in the control group. That difference was largely attributed to the higher incidence of use of residential placement for the control group. Use of FFT-G appeared to replace the use of more expensive social services to a greater extent than for the control group.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2014-R2-CX-0001, awarded to the University of Maryland. This article is based on the grantee final summary report “Reducing Gang Violence: A Randomized Trial of Functional Family Therapy.” (pdf, 14 pages).

The report authors are Denise C. Gottfredson (PI), Terence P. Thornberry, Molly Slothower, Deanna Devlin and Brook Kearley of the University of Maryland, and Jamie J. Fader of Temple University.