2005 Finalist
City of New York, NY
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards
New York

Many youths entering the juvenile justice system abuse alcohol and other drugs. Studies show that the most effective help comes from continuous treatment from one provider. Unfortunately, many treatment and incarceration programs for juveniles move youths from place to place, frustrating efforts to successfully treat their substance dependencies. Many never overcome their drug abuse, and become repeat offenders upon their readmission to mainstream society.

In New York City, youth offenders usually pass through at least three facilities before release, and sometimes as many as seven. Laws prohibited agencies from sharing treatment information about minors, and even if it were legal, no information systems were available to allow agencies easy access to addiction and treatment history.

Recognizing the need for change, the city's Department of Juvenile Justice approached a noted non-profit program developer, the Vera Institute of Justice, to help develop a new way to treat juveniles in the justice system for substance abuse. The result was the Adolescent Portable Therapy (APT) program, which emphasizes continuity of treatment as the means to recovery, as well as the importance of a strongly supportive community and family network.

For the first time, youths were assigned to a single therapist, no matter where they resided. Under APT, youths entering the justice system are given an intake survey to help indicate their likely needs. Youths who are identified as substance abusers are assigned to a therapist who calls and visits them at every stage of their passage through the juvenile justice system, from pre-trial to incarceration.

Family and community support also play an important role in the program. After admission to APT, the appointed therapist contacts the youth's families, explaining what their child is going through, and what they can do to help the treatment process. After the youth is released, the therapists continue to work with both the child and his or her family for three months. If the subject remains at risk after that time, the therapists help ensure placement in community treatment programs.

Backed up by solid results, the APT's focus on continuous, family-focused treatments is ripe for replication by any other jurisdiction seeking to treat substance abuse in the juvenile justice system. Seventy percent of youths stay in the treatment process long enough to end their substance abuse under APT, compared to only 40 percent before the creation of the program. Youths treated under APT are much less likely to re-enter the juvenile justice system. They also manifest fewer mental health problems than their peers who do not enter the program. They are more likely to attend school regularly, and their families are more likely to end dysfunctional behaviors that enable substance problems.