New Functional Family Therapy Program Reduces Recidivism in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. — As rehabilitation and therapy are becoming more prevalent in jails as an attempt to reduce recidivism, so are the number and variety of programs intended to accomplish this. The recent investment by the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in a new evidence-based family therapy program called Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is yet another exciting example of how to improve the correctional system.

FFT is a relatively new and highly successful family intervention program for at-risk youth. It is intended and used as a short-term intervention program with an average of 12 to 14 sessions over three to five months. FFT is defined by the organization itself as “a strength-based model built on a foundation of acceptance and respect.”

In June 2017, the Virginia DJJ shut down the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center in Powhatan Count. The savings that came from shutting down the facility made it possible for the DJJ to invest in the FFT program. At its core, FFT focuses on assessment and intervention to address risk and protective factors within and outside of the family that impact the adolescent in their adaptive development. Overall, FFT is meant to address serious problems found in youth, including conduct disorder, violence and substance abuse.

So far, FFT has mainly been used primarily with 11- to 18-year-old youth who have been referred for behavioral or emotional problems by the juvenile justice, mental health, school or child welfare systems. Inside of the youth detention center, younger siblings of referred adolescents and other family members often become part of the intervention process.

“In almost all cases, a child’s family is a critical part of their life and rehabilitation,” said Andy Block, director of the DJJ in a recent statement. “And yet, Virginia has lacked evidence-based family interventions in much of the state. With these new programs, and those we will add in the coming months, we will provide highly effective evidence-based programs for high-risk youth and their families, programs which research shows cost less, and gain better outcomes, than incarceration.”

Annually, FFT is being being applied in 11 countries and currently serving more than 300 sites. As a result, more than 50,000 families are helped by FFT each year. As a whole, FFT has been conducted both in clinic settings as an outpatient therapy and as a home-based model, and can also be provided in schools, child welfare facilities, probation and parole offices, aftercare systems and mental health facilities.

“FFT has proven itself effective time and again, because it targets the known causes of delinquency: family relations, peer relations, school performance and community factors,” said Valerie Boykin, deputy director of community programs at the DJJ. “One of our key goals as we continue to transform our agency is to keep court-involved youth in their communities, near family support whenever possible, and out of an institutional setting. FFT will play a major part in making this happen.”

DJJ is continually creating more opportunities for therapy and rehabilitation for its detainees, and has been doing so for over three years. Another example of such opportunities is the DJJ’s addition of another similar model of family intervention called Multisystemic Therapy (MST) in October 2017. The DJJ’s current plan is to implement FFT or MST in more than 100 jurisdictions within the year.

These recent changes and programs at the DJJ are just the beginning of what is ahead for Virginia. The DJJ began using research and data to introduce new practices and programs into their facilities three years ago, and in that time, better outcomes for youth in their centers have already improved, with the population of committed youth already having dropped significantly, according to the DJJ.

Rachel Leber

Rachel Leber is a freelance writer at Emlen Media. She can be reached directly at

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