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?