In Oklahoma, the First Time Offender Program (FTOP) is a pre-adjudicatory program for juvenile first-time offenders. Adolescents and pre-adolescents ages 12 to 16, who are usually referred to the program by criminal or truancy courts, attend the six-week program (12-16 hours of class time), with a parent or guardian. Once the referral is made, attendance is mandatory to avoid adjudication of the offense. The programs receive funding, oversight, and assistance from the Oklahoma Association of Youth Services (OAYS), but are relatively autonomous, each with its own board of directors.
Looking for ways to focus on youth, and concerned about the parents of troubled youth, OMI staff sought to involve FTOP. FTOP leaders agreed that the curriculum currently in use might be improved by integrating key concepts from PREP®. Staff at PSI worked with OAYS to add this material, focusing especially on the communication modules. The hope was that the adapted curriculum could benefit both parent-child and couple communication. The OMI first contracted with OAYS to deliver the program in 2002, with OMI providing leader training, materials, and a flat fee for each completed workshop. The contractual arrangement shifted in 2007, with OMI providing a general level of funding to OAYS for its work.
High level of implementation. OAYS became involved with the OMI during its early years, and its involvement was very active, particularly from 2003 to 2006. As of 2007, the agency had conducted the second largest number of OMI workshops among agencies, a total of 1,122. These workshops were provided to 20,438 parents and juveniles over the years, taking place in every DHS region of the state. A total of 260 youth services staff were trained to conduct the workshop. At least part of this high level of workshop activity is undoubtedly related to the fact that FTOP has access to a steady stream of participants, who are mandated to attend to avoid adjudication.
Curriculum adaptation. According to management staff, the topics to be covered in the FTOP curriculum are legally mandated and include adolescent development and the juvenile justice system, communication, problem solving, anger management, and values. Much of the PREP® material added to the preexisting curriculum was focused on communication and problem solving. In some ways, the additions were natural because there was some commonality between the communication skills in PREP® and FTOP. For instance, reflective listening in the original FTOP curriculum became the Speaker-Listener technique taught in PREP®.
Participant reactions. In a focus group with parents who had participated in the FTOP program with their adolescents, parents were able to recall many of the topics, including values (e.g., asking kids what was important to them), finances (cost of living on your own), anger management, communication (such as eye contact, speaker-listener), and adolescent development.
Parents indicated that the focus was on the parent-child relationship and occasionally relationships with peers or other family members. In about half of the classes, parents and children were split up so that parents could receive information about adolescent development. The topics of marriage, the parents relationship, or other romantic relationships were not discussed during the classes, according to these parents. Participants also indicated that couples rarely attended together, even if married. Instead, they would switch off or tag-team, with one parent attending each week. Although they were not discouraged from attending the group together, it was clear the requirement was only for one parent to attend at a time.
Although most parents were initially resentful about attending the class, discussion in our focus group indicated that they came to appreciate the information and skills, as well as the interactions with other parents. The class served to normalize their experiences and made many feel better about their children and their abilities as parents. Several parents said they did not use the skills taught in the class, but noted positive differences in their behaviors. One mother said that after the class she made more of an effort to control her anger and communicate with her daughter. Another mother said that she now gave more thought to letting her son speak his mind during discussions or disagreements with her. One woman thought the group generated a dialogue between her and her son, facilitating a conversation she had been wanting to have with him. She said the group built a bridge between her and her son.
The parents seemed less certain the group had made an impact on their children. Several of the parents continued to have problems with their adolescents (e.g., running away, dropping out of high school). One mother said she thought her daughter had learned something, but seemed even more defiant after the group. Another mother thought the group may have had short-term benefits for her son. A couple participating in the focus group was more positive, saying they thought the group helped their son learn something from his situation and avoid repeating his mistakes.
Refinements. In interviews with workshop leaders, many felt that both the basic approach and the curriculum used with FTOP participants needed to be revisited. They generally thought that the curriculum adaptation was inadequate, and that the basic principles of PREP® did not match the most pressing needs of their population. They viewed PREP® as oriented to spousal relationships, and thus needed to be adapted for parent-child relationships. They were also reluctant to emphasize the importance of two-parent families or discuss marriage, because they did not want to risk alienating the many attending parents who were single. Although the OMI urged the agency to encourage both parents to attend whenever possible, FTOP reported finding it difficult to achieve this.
Staff apparently felt some pressure to address couple relationship issues and marriage, and expressed concerns about the appropriateness of doing so in a program for youth offenders. Parents are compelled to attend the program because of their childs misbehavior, so they often come in feeling defensive or inadequate. Staff believed that these feelings could make it difficult for parents to receive any useful information about couple relationships or marriage positively. They felt that intervening at the level of the parents relationship with each other could send the message that the childs offense is being blamed on the parents, potentially exacerbating parental defensiveness and disengagement.
An additional concern about the curriculum adaptation involved the increased focus on communication skills, which they felt was cumbersome and difficult to teach in large groups of parents and children. Some program staff thought that it may be unrealistic or even inappropriate to expect young adolescents to use some of the PREP® communication practices, such as the speaker-listener technique, with either their peers or their parents. They felt that it would be better to teach parents to provide clear boundaries and direction for their children, rather than teach parents and children to communicate as if they were partners in an equal status relationship.
Thus, over time, it has become clear that the needs and circumstances of FTOP families have called into question the utility of the programs current approach and raised concerns about the curriculums suitability. FTOP staffs first priority is to reduce the likelihood of further offenses by the adolescents in their program. Although staff agree that focusing on relationships could be an important element in addressing this problem, they question the applicability of techniques for improving intimate couple relationships to parent-child relationships.
Current status. The OMI has recently initiated an effort to discuss future work and address these concerns with OAYS. In particular, its leadership plans to work with PREP® developers and OAYS agency directors to revise the curriculum and make it more appropriate and relevant for FTOP families.