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GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

GSSW Center for Effective Interventions to expand Multi-Systemic Therapy in underserved Colorado communities

May 8, 2018

Sue Kerns and Gov. John Kickenlooper
Suzanne Kerns (left) and Gov. John Hickenlooper

When Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the state's 2018 budget into law on April 30, it included $800,000 for the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) Center for Effective Interventions (CEI) to help expand Multi-Systemic Therapy statewide and reduce juvenile crime and substance use.

The three-year funding is part of a $2.37 million investment in Multi-Systemic Therapy expansion — one of three pilot projects included in the governor's Youth Pay for Success 2018 Initiative. In the Pay for Success model, which was authorized by bipartisan legislation in 2015, upfront private or philanthropic capital funds prevention programs; the government pays later for successful outcomes when services produce high downstream benefits to taxpayers and society.

"We conservatively estimate that this program will save Colorado taxpayers $7.66 million by keeping youth in their homes and out of the juvenile justice system. That is $3.31 in taxpayer savings for every dollar spent," says CEI Executive Director and GSSW Research Associate Professor Suzanne Kerns, PhD, who is working on a book about evidence-based interventions and implementation. "Multi-Systemic Therapy has over 20 years of evidence demonstrating dramatic, long-lasting positive outcomes for youth, families and communities. We're excited to be able to bring it to families in Colorado."

Multi-Systemic Therapy is an evidence-based intervention for youths ages 12–17 who are involved or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system. The family- and community-based approach has been shown to reduce out-of-home placements, keep kids in school and out of trouble, improve family function, decrease adolescent psychiatric symptoms, and decrease adolescent drug and alcohol use. But that is only if implementation closely adheres to the Multi-Systemic Therapy model.

That is where CEI comes in. Only a handful of Colorado communities currently offer Multi-Systemic Therapy, Kerns says, and even in places like Denver where it is available, there is unmet need. CEI is soliciting applications from community mental health centers statewide that wish to provide Multi-Systemic Therapy. Once it is fully implemented, the pilot program will fund six Multi-Systemic Therapy teams that together will serve more than 600 youth during the project period. CEI will train the provider teams in the intervention and will continue to support them with technical assistance and quality assurance.

"CEI applies the best of implementation science to ensure that communities benefit from Multi-Systemic Therapy," says Kerns, who is research conference co-chair for the Society for Implementation Research Collaboration and a member of the Child & Family Evidence Based Practices Consortium leadership group. For the Colorado initiative, that also means embedding service providers into local and regional stakeholder groups that will help to tailor the intervention to the unique culture, challenges and needs of individual communities.

For instance, Kerns says, part of the treatment involves getting youth involved in positive activities. In rural areas where such options may be limited, "You have to get really creative. As part of this project, we're creating opportunities for collaboration to help think through that challenge creatively."

Among Colorado Multi-Systemic Therapy participants, CEI expects to see lower recidivism rates, decreases in substance use and more youth living at home instead of in juvenile detention or foster care. And, Kerns notes, they are aiming for 90 percent of participants to be in school or working by the end of their treatment.

"U.S. taxpayer dollars funded development of the Multi-Systemic Therapy intervention, which has been proven to work," Kerns says. "The tragedy of it is that it hasn't been widely available in Colorado communities. We're working to change that."

"The Graduate School of Social Work emphasizes the development, dissemination and implementation of evidence-based practices to meet community needs," says GSSW Dean Amanda Moore McBride. "We are honored to be working with the State of Colorado and service providers statewide to help transform individual lives, families, communities and juvenile justice in the state."

The Center for Effective Interventions helps agencies, communities, tribes and government programs in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas to effectively implement Multi-Systemic Therapy for chronic and violent juvenile offenders and their families. Contact the Center for Effective Interventions to learn more about their services and how they can help.