Getting Therapy Instead of Serving Time

A whole-family approach shows promise in keeping young offenders out of prison.

This is the final article in a six-part series about young people with siblings in prison. Read part one here.

Children as young as 13 can be tried in adult criminal court for serious crimes in New York state. But instead of redirecting troubled kids, prison hardens them. That’s why the New York Foundling, a private children’s-advocacy organization, offers an alternative, Families Rising, a diversionary option that mandates family therapy in exchange for delayed sentencing and avoiding a criminal record entirely if the program is completed successfully. The program also costs significantly less than housing an inmate at New York City’s Rikers Island: $8,400 versus $167,731. To date, participants have also proved the experiment’s validity: Of the Families Rising participants, 97 percent completed the program and avoided a criminal record; 92 percent completed the program and avoided jail time altogether.

Families Rising operates from the belief that most children are products of their environments. “A child who is arrested and tried as an adult should not be viewed in isolation or a vacuum,” according to their website. “Instead, we view the child in the context of his or her family, and introduce a trained therapist into the family dynamic to help them address factors leading to their arrest.” Formally called “functional family therapy,” the practice can be intensive for all members of the family—especially parents, who are often under extreme pressure to make sure the prescribed therapy is successful, lest their son or daughter be taken into custody.

I talked to therapists Maris Schwartz and Catherine Boatwright, who co-supervise the Families Rising clinicians. Therapists are only assigned to families after an initial screening process in which they meet all members of the immediate family. They then meet with them for sessions at the young person’s home. “They’re getting an opportunity instead of incarceration,” Schwartz said. An edited and abridged version of our conversation follows.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: When do you come into contact with siblings of the young offender? Do they become involved in the process?

Catherine Boatwright: Typically, our clinicians try to speak to every family member before the first session. Of course, we’re speaking to the guardian. We also try to speak to the siblings, to introduce ourselves so that engagement starts from day one. The family understands that we really see this as a family problem and that it’s not just the incarcerated youth who’s going through this. It’s actually also the siblings. Engagement is really something that we try for before we even walk in the front door. In the work that we do, these siblings are such a big part of what’s going on. Even in the referral process, right out of the gate, we ask about any family members the youth has a relationship with, anyone who’s residing in the home, so we can start to identify who is involved.

Lantigua-Williams: What are the siblings’ roles in this process?

Maris Schwartz: When we come into our first therapy session with the family, you’d be surprised at how much information the sibling can give a therapist about what actually goes on in the home. Sometimes there are feelings of: I don’t want to rat out my mom. I don’t want to rat out my daughter or son for things that they’re doing. There’s a hesitation to share the story with you, which I completely understand, because there tends to be a history of failed systems involved. So there’s already a lack of trust. But when you bring a sibling in, you learn a lot more about the family—what they value, what their patterns are actually like, how they interact.

A lot of times, siblings knew something was going on with their brother or sister and saw something happening. Or they were involved with them in some of these high-risk behaviors. There’s a range of things that you get from them. Some of the younger siblings that we’ve worked with are starting to exhibit the same high-risk behaviors that an older brother or sister is exhibiting. So if we’re not including them from day one, we’re missing a big part of the family. Not including younger siblings in those first sessions puts the whole family at risk.

Lantigua-Williams: How does one young person’s encounter with the criminal-justice system impact his or her siblings?

Schwartz: Often our referred client is not the first in the sibling line who has served time. We’ve often had cases where they were the third sibling in a row who has gone through incarceration and entered the system. There’s often a history with the older siblings already having gone through it.

And you have younger siblings who are also starting to engage in similar behaviors and to put themselves at risk. The family unit as a whole goes through a real trauma when a brother or sister is taken away—and they don’t know for how long and they don’t know what’s happening to them. Then we see how excited the little siblings are when the offending youth finally returns home and the role model is back and we see how much they’ve missed them.

Boatwright: I, myself, was a sibling of an incarcerated youth so I can speak to it from that level and from a clinician’s perspective. With the female siblings, you see a lot of trauma symptomatology: You hear a lot about nightmares. Picturing my sibling in handcuffs is something that I think about each night. What could be happening to them while they’re incarcerated? I had that from three different sisters I’ve worked with, and I actually experienced that as well.

For some of the much younger siblings I’ve had, around elementary-school age, it’s the same thing: a lot of nightmares and not understanding where the older brother or sister is going. Their mind goes to this trauma place of: I don’t know where they are. I’ve heard bad things. So they’re having nightmares. They’re acting out at school.

Additionally, with the females I’ve worked with, I’ve had a few girl siblings who stopped attending school during that period because they were so worried about their parents. I had one case in which the mom became very depressed during that period. And because she was so fearful of her mom not getting out of bed and her mom crying, a straight-A student stopped going to school because she just wanted to be home with her mom to make sure that her mom was okay.

Lantigua-Williams: So there’s a fear for the safety of the sibling and also a fear for the safety of the parent?

Boatwright: It’s not unusual that they’ve had either a parent or another sibling who has previously been incarcerated. That’s a pretty common occurrence. Unfortunately, it’s a generational issue, with both immediate and extended family members. For the clients we work with, it’s rare for this to be the family’s first encounter with law enforcement, with incarceration, and with the system.

I worked with a client who was the third brother in a row to end up incarcerated. While I was working with him, both of his older brothers were serving time upstate. In fact, his very first case began because of affiliation, allegedly with him carrying weapons on behalf of his brothers’ gang. They used him because he was a juvenile at the time. He got pulled into this system following their lead.

Lantigua-Williams: Can you give some other examples of secondary trauma to the siblings?

Boatwright: The brother or sister left at home may not be the one who’s serving time, but they’re really in it and experiencing all that pain their family is feeling. They’re going through it and really face the aftermath directly, too.

Lantigua-Williams: The sibling sometimes feels forgotten about or neglected because “the problem child” is sucking up all the attention.

Boatwright: I’ve had that come up with certain families. You have some siblings who are very careful and worried. Then you have others who are really angry, too. They feel forgotten or that their needs are being neglected because there is someone else right now who just needs more assistance.

Lantigua-Williams: I spoke to a woman whose brother went into prison when they were both teenagers. She told me that, for many years, she had the expectation that she would end up in prison, too. Is that something you hear?

Boatwright: We have three cases like that in our caseload right now. There are three males who have older brothers in the system—one was murdered while in jail, and the other two are away at Rikers. The younger brothers say: This is our destiny. This is what happens to everyone in our family. It’s not something that we can get away from.

With one particular client, when he’s out in the community and he’s working very hard to stay away from negative peers and to make different decisions, there’s this inner-voice for him that sometimes says: Well, it doesn’t really make a difference if you walk away now. In a week or so, this could happen again. And: This is where you’re going to go because this is where your brother went before you, which is heartbreaking.

Schwartz: For a lot of clients, once one sibling is in trouble, there’s a scarlet letter attached to all the kids in that family. The police in that neighborhood know that they’re so-and-so’s little brother, and they often get harassed. People are just waiting—This is what your family does—feeling like they’re born into it. Whether innocent or not, the police and people in the area know the affiliation of the family.

Lantigua-Williams: Once one sibling is removed, do the other siblings step into more parental roles?

Boatwright: I have seen that in a variety of ways. Anecdotally, a lot of times when a brother is sentenced to serve a lot of time, there are sisters in the family who get protective and take the parents’ role, feeling like it’s their job to care for everyone or do their best to prevent this from happening again.

Lantigua-Williams: How do the family dynamics change in the process?

Boatwright: For a variety of reasons, there’s a lack of belief among these families that something can be different. Sometimes this is a good family, but the neighborhood has made them believe that this is their destiny and they’re not going to change. And sometimes, it’s because for years they had system involvement and it has not worked for them.

So what the functional-therapy model does in the first phase of treatment is bring in the therapist to ask: How do I give this family a different story that’s workable? How do I talk to them about what has not gone so well for them? How do I add some noble intent into what they’ve done so that they’re motivated to try to behave differently and work as a family? How do I get them to see that they’re not broken, that they do have another shot, that they do have more power than they realize? How do I get them to see that they can actually stay out of the justice system if they’re able to engage in these services?

Lantigua-Williams: Can you talk about the differences you see in the siblings based on gender?

Boatwright: With the female siblings I work with, it’s more internalizing behavior: depression, not attending school, nightmares. With the boy siblings I’ve worked with, it’s more external. For example, in one case, once the brother was sent away, the younger sibling felt the need to go into the community and essentially defend his family’s name—I need to go out and puff my chest up—which got him hurt. He was beat up many times as a result of that. I’ve seen that with a few different boys; it was aggression with a spike.

The other thing that I’ve seen with younger male siblings is: I feel disconnected. I can connect to the sibling that I’ve lost by joining that same gang or engaging with some of these negative peers who knew my brother. A lot of times, there is tension going on in the family, and there is a disconnect that can happen between a sibling and a parent. So you’ve got this younger brother who romanticizes the older sibling, and when he sees them go away, he feels the one group who maybe will understand him are these people who were running the streets with the older sibling. I’ve seen that a lot.

Lantigua-Williams: What else do I need to know to understand these siblings?

Schwartz: There’s often a certain sense of loss—the loss of control, and the not-knowing—which obviously would make any person anxious. Based on age, there’s going to be different reactions to that. Often older siblings have such an important role in their families. They’re the ones who might get little siblings dressed and take them to school in the morning. They’re the ones who might put them to bed at night when mom’s at work. With a lot of our families, the siblings were in very close relationships and have big roles. The sibling being away, that would be such a loss. Depending on their age, they may not even understand what’s happening. And not having an idea if a sibling is coming back, or what’s going on, can be very heartbreaking.

It can be very easy to focus on the “problem sibling” who’s incarcerated. But there are so many effects on the siblings, too.