Why Boot Camps, Group Homes and ‘Scared Straight’ Settings are Not the Answer for At-Risk Teens

The biggest predictor for delinquent behavior, other than prior delinquent behavior, is association with delinquent peers. So what sense does it make to force delinquent kids to associate with each other? If you said none, you are correct.

Nonetheless, we continually try intervention strategies that do just that. How often do you hear of kids being placed in group therapy, group homes, boot camp, and so on? These are very common treatment approaches in today’s world. Whom do you think they are with in these programs?

According to Patrick Duffy, Jr., PsyD, author of Parenting Your Delinquent, Defiant, or Out-of-Control Teen, group treatment centers and group homes are not filled with straight-A students and law-abiding kids who are there to meet young offenders and keep them straight.

“The kids who go into these programs are those committing offenses, and they are forced to meet and become friends with other young offenders—the very type of friendship that predicts delinquent behavior,” says Duffy.

“It satisfies our desire for justice or vengeance,” he adds, “to see a drill sergeant yell at a thirteen-year-old on afternoon talk shows, but the truth is that there is no rigorous evidence to support these approaches.”

Of course, there are examples of such group treatments being helpful, but the research shows that this is not the case for most participants. It is also important to remember that not all studies and evidence cited in support of treatments are created equal. When seeking services, parents should look for repeated clinical trials that show long-term outcomes, approaches that survive the scrutiny of peer review to be published in scholarly journals.

“When you are told that a program gets great results, ask yourself who published the results and where. Consider how they might measure results. The programs included in this discussion demonstrate significantly decreased rates of arrest for years following treatment,” Duffy says.

The same reasoning outlined above also applies to programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. There are many people who have been helped by these programs, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (2009), research does not show them to be effective in treating substance abuse in juveniles. There may be some people who have been helped by these programs, and you yourself may even have been helped by these programs. But when it comes to treating substance in juveniles, again, Duffy says they just don’t work well.

A child’s characteristics are not the biggest predictors of substance use. Therefore, targeting those is not likely to get the best result. In fact, grouping kids who are substance abusers is actually likely to promote substance use.  Kids who go into these programs typically do so to satisfy the courts or their parents rather than out of a genuine desire to stop using.

So what can you do, and what should you do? Duffy stands by some programs that have been shown to be effective by the Washington State Institute of Public Policy and Blueprints for Violence Prevention, but says those programs are not yet available to all who need them. Ultimately, he reinforces the principle that to change delinquent behavior, it is essential to target the influences that contribute to or sustain the behavior. Specifically, you must examine and change contributors in the family, peer group, and school, possibly some elements in the neighborhood, and possibly the child.

“The key is willingness. If you are sufficiently concerned, frustrated, angered, embarrassed, scared, disappointed, or hurt by the behavior of your child, the changes we discuss will seem trivial when compared to the thought of continuing along that path,” says Duffy.

For more from Patrick Duffy Jr., PsyD, check out his new book, Parenting Your Delinquent, Defiant, or Out-of-Control Teen: How to Help Your Teen Stay in School and Out of Trouble Using an Innovative, Multisystemic Approach.


National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2009. Principles of Drug Addiction and Treatment: A Research-Based Guide. NIH Publication 09-4180. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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