OP-ED: Rising Ground: A Therapeutic Approach Works


Rising Ground: A Therapeutic Approach Works

Lisa Crook

Rising Ground operates non-secure placement and limited-secure placement facilities throughout the city for adjudicated youth. Unlike adult prisons, Rising Ground facilities offer therapies, intervention programs, and emotional supports that help youth in placement succeed once released.

At Rising Ground, we see positive indicators of our work every day: rival gang members befriend each other; youth finally open up about the trauma they’ve experienced; a young girl who previously skipped school secures an internship. These seemingly small successes represent big changes in the thinking and behavior of the young people we support.

New York State has historically disciplined court-involved youth rather than treat them as the children they are. Placing youth in state-run juvenile facilities – or jails for kids – has traditionally inflicted far more harm on already burdened youth and contributed to recidivism rates as high as 80 percent.

That’s neither right nor fair, and it is clearly a recipe for failure.

Thankfully, policy is catching up to research, which has proven that the brain continues to form connections and keeps maturing until age 25. New policies like Close to Home and Raise the Age have enabled organizations like Rising Ground to treat rather than discipline court-involved youth.

One of the most important changes in how New York treats adjudicated youth is its commitment to keeping youth geographically close to their families. This change enables placement facilities like those operated by Rising Ground to involve the entire family in the youth’s rehabilitation. Through the evidence-based program Functional Family Therapy (FFT), families learn concrete skills on how to address high-risk behaviors, family conflict, and improve communication. Having mothers, fathers, caregivers and siblings take an active part in any recovery greatly improves the odds of success. Because youth are placed near their communities, the therapists can begin working with the youth and their families while they are in placement to help promote a smooth transition home. The support during that transition has proved to be a vital key to the youth’s success.

To that end, Rising Ground utilizes The Missouri Approach as its foundation for treatment. Developed by Missouri’s Division of Youth Services as an alternative to the correctional punishment model, this approach places youthful offenders in small residences instead of prisons. Their day is structured and new norms and expectations are set, such as adhering to rules, showing respect for others, handling responsibility, and practicing positive behavior. Youth continue to attend school on-site, enabling them to continue with their studies and – in many cases – apply themselves in ways they never have before.

The structure and support of the Missouri Approach creates an emotionally safe environment where youth are able to internalize the therapeutic changes needed to return safely and successfully to the community.

Using this model, the State of Missouri has measured its recidivism rates with other states that calculate youth recidivism in similar ways. In one such measure, Missouri’s rate was 8.5% compared to 23.4%, 20.8%, and 26% for Arizona, Indiana, and Maryland respectively. In New Jersey the recidivism rate was 36.7% compared to Missouri’s rate of 14.5%.

It’s clearly working.

Through the use of the Missouri Approach, Rising Ground creates a supportive peer culture in which young people open up to each other and build relationships that become the biggest drivers of personal transformation. Group therapy rooted in a cognitive behavioral therapy approach supports youth in identifying negative patterns of thinking that contribute to their behaviors. They learn how to interrupt those patterns to make safer decisions.

Most court-involved youth have histories of trauma and at Rising Ground we see this with the young people we work with every day. Research has shown that children who experience the trauma of abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation, or community violence, also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, are at high risk of engaging in risky behavior or substance use and having behavioral disorders and chronic disease. Through therapies such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Aggression Replacement Training, youth learn to identify and understand how trauma has impacted them and what triggers negative feelings, and replace aggression with positive alternatives and coping methods to help them regain control and feel safe. 

In addition to each youth working on his or herself, Rising Ground youth also learn how to communicate and relate to others. Through Dialectical Behavior Therapy, youth work individually and in groups to learn to manage emotions and improve relationships. They gain strength, insight and support from their peers, often resulting in greater success in school, social settings and the workforce after placement. Peer support is critical to the equation.

From the day that a court-involved youth enters placement, Rising Ground staff begin preparing them for re-entry into the community. Therapists work with each youth to set in-program goals, such as improving grades or reducing aggression. These goals evolve as youth work through the program until they are able to set long-term objectives for after placement, such as finishing school, getting a job, and safely returning to their families and communities.

The work we do is complex and comprehensive. It’s often hard to agree on a universal measure of success but, at Rising Ground, we understand that seemingly small victories each day can change the trajectory of a young person’s life.