Healthy families begin at home

“Nick” has been in special education services since elementary school and developed a substance abuse problem by the time he was in middle school. Then he was diagnosed with a mental health problem. As a teen, he was arrested and convicted for a number of juvenile offenses.

Nick is a fictional character, but resembles many troubled youth in New Hampshire. What’s the best way to address the needs of kids like Nick in the middle of a budget crisis? Today, kids like Nick often end up in a residential treatment center, where they can be isolated from their home, family, school and community. These programs are often expensive and treat problems in an artificial, controlled setting and then return the youth to the same environment where the problems started — only to discover that the problems quickly reappear.

Another option is the use of intensive in-home and community-based treatment programs for high-risk youth. These programs deliver services in the natural environment — the home, school and community — and target the factors that contribute to a young person’s problematic behavior.

The state of Connecticut has been using this approach through a program called multi-systemic therapy, or MST, as an alternative to residential treatment for the past 10 years. Today, following completion of the program, nearly 75 percent of the children and youth treated were still living at home, attending school, vocational training or in a paying job and had not been arrested for another offense.

The cost of providing MST services is just 15 percent of the average cost for residential treatment services, at $68,000 per youth. According to one study, the savings to taxpayers range from $31,661 (for savings to the criminal justice system alone) to $131,918 (including crime victim benefits) per youth served.

In New Hampshire, as elsewhere, budget pressure is intense these days. We need to spend our treatment dollars wisely and invest in programs that are not only cost-effective but provide the best outcomes for high-risk children and youth. We can live up to our promise to families and save money too.

Craig D. Amoth is executive director of Familystrength, a statewide nonprofit serving at-risk youth and families.

Categories: Opinion