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National Assembly: Drugs, Alcohol Abuse,
and the Criminal Offender
Thursday, December 9, 1999

Juvenile Interventions

Randall Wykoff, Director
Office of Disease Prevention and Heath Promotion
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Washington, D.C.

Eugenia Ortega, Superintendent
Karl Holton Youth Correctional Drug and Alcohol Treatment Facility
California Youth Authority
Stockton, California

Douglas C. Dodge
Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention
U.S. Department of Justice
Washington, D.C.

Alvera Stern, Special Assistant to the Director
Center for Substance Abuse Prevention
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Washington, D.C.


Summary of Proceedings

Panelists argued that prevention, early intervention, family involvement and multidisciplinary approaches are the hallmarks of effective responses to dealing with juvenile substance abuse and criminal or delinquent behavior.

Moderator Randall Wykoff of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion presented these measures of the scope of the problem:

In a recent survey of high school seniors, one-third reported at least one incident of binge drinking during the previous 2 weeks, and one-fourth reported using a controlled substance during the same time period. One in ten reported using cocaine regularly. He further noted that:

  • Approximately two of every five young people entering the corrections system are chemically dependent. A similar percentage report being under the influence of drugs or alcohol when committing a crime.
  • More than 200,000 arrests for drug-related offenses by juveniles take place annually, including 30,000 arrests of youths under the age of 14.

Wykoff argued that substance abuse by juveniles is a public health problem, a social health problem, and a criminal justice problem. Effective solutions require a substantial, comprehensive, and collaborative approach. Cost-effective answers demand that society reach these young people before they become users, before they have health problems, and before they reach the juvenile justice system.

Successful work with young people must begin from the premise that their needs are different from those of adults and that programs must be designed specifically with their particular needs in mind. Prevention programs are key to working effectively with youth, said Dr. Alvera Stern of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP).

These programs need to identify risk factors associated with the likelihood of future problems, such as poor family and/or peer relationships, and develop varied approaches to decrease those risk factors. Specific prevention strategies include: the dissemination of specific information, such as media campaigns about healthy lifestyles; skills-building, such as teen workshops on peer pressure and parenting education for adults; and the provision of alternative activities, such as art, music, sports, and community volunteer projects.

Prevention programs must bring together all elements of the community, Stern said. Citing a number of joint Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention/CSAP-funded family-strengthening programs in place across the country that help build positive family relationships, Stern said collaborative programs involving multiple organizations have demonstrated the greatest success. These collaborative programs include the cooperation of various federal agencies, state and local governments, and public and private sector community-based organizations. She encouraged more efforts from community groups and faith-based institutions.

Stern also cited another successful collaborative program in Pennsylvania, the School Assistance Program. Financed with state and local funding, this program helps schools assess individual students and their families, identifying issues that may impede success in school before these issues get out of hand and helping families find appropriate resources for dealing with problems. The program is required in each elementary and secondary school in the state. It has resulted in decreased rates of substance abuse and other mental health problems, such as suicide.

Eugenia Ortega, Superintendent of the Karl Holton Youth Correctional Drug and Alcohol Treatment Facility in California, cited her program as an example of effective institutional intervention for juveniles. Components of a successful intervention include accountability for behavior, a commitment to change behavior, long-range planning, skills-building, and treatment. Institutional interventions generally emphasize behavioral modification over community interventions. Ortega's facility emphasizes education and physical fitness. Facility staff often are called upon to act as a substitute for an offender's family, but families need to become more involved in the program, she said. Some families participate in group therapy, but other types of involvement are also needed.

The Holton facility is the only institution in the California correctional system devoted entirely to substance-abusing juvenile offenders and the largest such institution in the nation. It opened after the California Youth Authority (CYA) learned that 80 to 85 percent of all young men sentenced to CYA facilities had a history of either substance abuse or a drug-related offense. Today, the center has a 36-percent recidivism rate, compared with a 49-percent recidivism rate for a similar population in other institutions. Although initial funding was difficult to locate, Ortega said, the federal government assisted with funding once the program was in place.

Douglas Dodge of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), argued that community aftercare programs are critical for a successful transition from institutional settings to the community. The value of planning and treatment efforts within institutions will be lost quickly without strong community supports. Thus, he said, "Whether public or private, [community supports] need to be in place, and [these supports] need to be linked to the initial planning process with the child and the family."

The key to successful aftercare, said Dodge, is planning for and working with the young people as soon as they enter an institution rather than waiting until they are ready for release. A strong case management system that offers individualized assessment and comprehensive services is the appropriate method. The transition process back to the community following incarceration should be highly structured and supervised, with gradual reduction in oversight as the young people reintegrate successfully.

Aftercare programs must consider and adapt to particular local needs, he said. In rural jurisdictions, for example, programs can be complicated by distances between the resources available and those who need them. A Las Vegas-based juvenile aftercare program, which serves a widely scattered rural population, provides additional personnel to cover the large area as well as transportation services to help families get to both residential facilities and community aftercare programs.

Aftercare programs are receiving more attention and more resources than in the past. Dodge noted that OJJDP has developed an evidence-based theoretical model to work in aftercare settings. Currently, the model is being tested in three jurisdictions: Denver, Colorado; Norfolk, Virginia; and Las Vegas, Nevada.

Panelists also stressed the importance of working with a juvenile's entire family. The more family members use alcohol and drugs, the more likely a young person will begin abusing substances. "The major pathway to kids' later drug use is the family," Stern said. "We have strong empirical evidence that if we want to get at the root cause of substance abuse and violence among young people, we have to look at families."

Panelists also noted that limited resources often hinder efforts to work with young people. Collaborations must exchange resources to be more effective, Ortega said. Evidence that supports program effectiveness also will make it possible to develop new resources.


Last Updated: March 4, 2002

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