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Prevention better than cure for serious offenders

Urgent prevention better than cure for serious youth offenders

Youth Horizons, New Zealand’s only major treatment provider for young people with Severe Conduct Disorder (SCD), warns that more resources are urgently required to treat youths with SCD to prevent them from developing into lifelong criminals.

The prevention message will be one of the major themes of the Youth Horizons Conference on Conduct Disorder at the Rutherford Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, on 27 and 28 June 2005.

Around 2 to 5 percent of young people aged between 12 and 17 years exhibit SCD, but they commit around 50 percent of all crime, and are also responsible for more serious and violent crimes than their peers, according to Youth Horizons National Clinical Director Justine Harris.

“If left unchecked, the estimated cost to the country over the course of each offender’s life is well in excess of $3 million in policing, court costs, and imprisonment,” says Justine Harris. “And that figure does not even begin to address the larger costs to society or the suffering inflicted on the victims of the crimes.”

Young people with SCD show persistent disregard for normal societal rules and the basic rights of others. The condition is commonly manifested in aggression towards people or animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness or theft, and serious violation of rules and laws.

“Youth Horizons is currently the only major treatment provider for these kids, but we need to expand our capacity or the problem will grow beyond our ability to effectively address it,” says Justine Harris.

The organisation provides a range of interventions in residential and foster care settings, and intensive clinical support services in the community. The most effective of these services is Multi-Systemic Therapy (MST), an intensive treatment programme that targets young people at risk of placement into residential or foster care and instead treats them in their own home environment.

“We set up a collaboration between our therapists and the family to develop natural support systems to, for example, reduce the seriousness of the young person’s antisocial behaviour. The average length of treatment is about 60 hours of contact over a four-month period, with the therapist on-call 24/7 to support the family,” says Justine Harris.

According to a Ministry of Social Development report released in February 2005, Youth Horizons’ programmes offer considerable real savings to taxpayers because by effectively treating SCD, young offenders may be prevented from developing into lifelong criminals thereby reducing long-term court and prison costs.

“MST and other highly interventionist approaches to SCD are effective, efficient, and less expensive than imprisonment but they are not a ‘quick fix’,” says Justine Harris.

“Our programmes take time to show results and require substantial funding sustained over the long term to reduce the amount of serious offending committed by youths with SCD. “To achieve this, we need to move now to expand our services, develop the skills of our current therapists, and attract and train new ones. Our conference on Conduct Disorder at Victoria University is part of our strategy to raise awareness of the condition and thereby try to influence long-term government planning.”

Youth Horizons background in 1996, the Department of Social Welfare invited two child and adolescent psychiatrists – Professor John Werry and Doctor Peter McGeorge – to design a treatment programme for young people diagnosed with SCD. Youth Horizons was the result.

Youth Horizons is a non-profit organisation providing treatments for families and young people with complex behavioural and/or mental health needs. The organisation has over 100 staff and operates five residential homes. Around 60 young people are in treatment with Youth Horizons at any one time, some in residential care, around 20 in foster care, and the rest within their own families.

The public cannot apply directly to Youth Horizons for treatment – young people are referred to Youth Horizons for treatment by Government agencies such as Child, Youth and Family (CYF), the Ministry of Health, and the Department of Corrections.

Youth Horizons’ services include:

• Auckland Bridging Programme A residential programme for young people in the Auckland region who are under the custody of CYF and have been diagnosed with SCD. The programme consists of six homes across the Auckland region.

• Early Intervention Service for Adolescent Psychosis A mobile youth and family focused early intervention service for adolescents aged 13 to 18 years at risk of developing a first episode of psychosis. The service covers Waikato, Hauraki and the Coromandel regions.

• Intensive Clinical Intervention Service Based on MST principals, the service aims to work intensively with the family and wider social ecology of children and youth who have involvement with both CYF and mental health services. The service covers the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions.

• Hamilton Family Home A five-bed family home for young people with severe behavioural problems.

• Respite Foster Care Gives parents of children with complex mental health and behaviour problems a weekend respite from the extraordinary parental demands placed upon them.

• Specialist Caregiver Programme The Specialist Caregiver Programme provides young people with extreme behavioural problems the opportunity to live in the community with specialist caregivers.

• Youth Mentoring Programme Matches young people with volunteer adult mentors to guide young people through the challenging transition from care to independent living.

• Ka Awatea Provides comprehensive aftercare services to young people who are becoming independent from CYF care.

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