Family therapy with juvenile delinquents: impact of learning disabilities, antisocial attitudes, and family resources



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Texas Tech University


Studies of the etiology of juvenile delinquency are usually limited to a linear or uni-directional model that ignores the interrelations of numerous factors. Using the transactional model of systems theory, this study examined the interrelations of various factors contributing to juvenile delinquency. Four main factors were hypothesized to be important in the etiology of delinquency: the personality of the child, family dynamics, biological attributes, and the cognitive ability of the juvenile. A sample of 74 juveniles were studied to predict their functioning 3-6 months after release from a residential facility.

Poorer family functioning, rated by the probation officer 3-6 months after release, was predicted in a discriminant function analysis (DFA) by more referrals for assault, more infractions in the residential facility, fewer intangible family resources, and attendance at fewer than two family therapy sessions. Poorer child functioning, as rated by the probation officer 3-6 months after release, was predicted by more infractions in the facility, minority racial/ethnic status, and female gender. Earlier recidivism could be predicted by more infractions in the facility, lower income per family member, female gender, and participating in at least two sessions of family therapy (all adolescents included). When recidivism was predicted excluding those who did not commit an offense after release, the presence of a learning disability, participating in more than two sessions of family therapy, and female gender predicted earlier recidivism.

There was evidence of gender and racial biases in the probation officer's ratings: minority adolescents and females tended to be rated as lower functioning, but minority status did not predict recidivism. Females were more likely to recidivate; however, their offenses were much less severe (i.e., runaway and truancy versus assault and burglary for males).

The finding that greater participation in family therapy predicted earlier recidivism appears to be an artifact of facility policies. The staff members of the facility were more likely to strongly encourage the families of adolescents who were especially troublesome to participate in family therapy. Such adolescents were also held in the facility for a longer period of time, permitting more family therapy sessions to take place.