An American Inferno: A Response

Posted by Allison Altwer

Nov 7, 2017 8:30:00 AM

How Multisystemic Therapy gave this young man from Compton a chance to be more than a statistic

In the summer of 2017, The New Yorker ran an article titled “American Inferno: The Life of a South Central Statistic.” This was a woman’s story of how her cousin became involved in the juvenile  justice system and his eventual murder—making him one more tragic statistic.

As a Multisystemic Therapy (MST) therapist in the Compton and South Central areas of Los Angeles County, I see these “statistics” play out in real life.

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My heart aches for youth and families that could have a different outcome. At times, it is heartbreaking to realize that what has been so helpful for so many of the families I work with, is not available to so many others. It is painful to know that we have a tool that works, a method that can help, and we can only reach a small portion of families who would benefit.

It is time we provide different options and outcomes for families. Results in which families can celebrate their children while alive and not mourn for their loss so early in life as still-another statistic.

Here is a story with a different ending than that of the young man in The New Yorker piece.

A story that could have ended with another mother losing her son to gun violence or the justice system.

After receiving the MST referral from Brian’s probation officer, I knew I had my work cut out. Brian was a 17-year-old African American who lived Compton with his mother and 2-year-old sister. He had a positive relationship with his mother and turned to her for support. 

A teenager in trouble with the law

When I began working with him and his family, he had already been charged several times. He was put on formal probation in December 2016 for a home burglary and spent two weeks in juvenile hall. Brian had no prior involvement in the legal or juvenile justice system, except for an occasional confrontation with L.A.P.D. while hanging out with his friends at the park or walking around the neighborhood after dark. Brian’s friends had asked him to come along on home breaks-ins before, which he had always turned down. But by this time, Brian had seen his friends get away with so many crimes, that doing a burglary seemed low risk and high reward. He rode in a car with two older friends to a “nicer” house in Compton, entered it through a half-opened window and began grabbing electronic items. A neighbor contacted the police, and Brian and his friends were arrested before they were able to leave the house.

He picked up another charge in January 2017 for marijuana possession on his high-school campus. This time, he was placed on house arrest for 30 days.

The teenager was presenting other problem behaviors. He spent most of his time with known gang members. He was ditching classes or not attending school at all. On the days Brian did show up, he was disrespectful to teachers and often disruptive in class. He would violate curfew several times a week and rarely completed chores or followed his mother’s directives in the home.

From hopelessness to confidence

At the start of treatment, Brian’s mother, Sharon, felt hopeless and powerless. Brian was spiraling out of control, and everything she had tried to do to help him wasn’t working. Sharon feared that as Brian was approaching 18, she would no longer be able to “save him” from the system. As a single mother with a lack of family members in the area for support, she was too overwhelmed to address her son’s behaviors. Sharon felt hopeless as her family became further involved with probation, and Brian continued to be non-compliant with the probation requirements. Sharon was also disappointed with the school system, which she felt was quick to expel her son instead of taking steps to address his actions and attendance issues. Sharon’s hopelessness led her to believe that Brian was destined to the streets, where he would either end up in prison or dead. She did not want her son to be another statistic.

I started working with them in May 2017. Sharon was thankful that someone was finally there to advocate for her family. Knowing that someone would be with her every step of the way gave Sharon the confidence she needed to take action.

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No more smoking weed

We began by targeting Brian’s marijuana use. Sharon came up with the idea of giving him random home drug tests. When he tested negative, Brian kept his cellphone as a reward. When he tested positive, he lost his cellphone until he tested clean. Sharon would also notify Brian’s probation officer of the test results. Due to her consistently implementing this behavior plan, it only took Brian about three weeks to realize that if he wanted his cellphone, and wanted to avoid probation violations, he would need to stop smoking marijuana.

Once Brian was testing clean, Sharon noticed that his motivation increased. Unfortunately by this time, Brian had completed his senior year of high school without acquiring a diploma. For two weeks, Sharon drove her son to the Compton Adult School to complete assessment testing, meetings with school counselors and developing a night-school schedule. Brian began working toward his high school diploma. Sharon took him to and from school to make sure he showed up.

Looking to the future

With Brian now attending school regularly, he began thinking about how his education was going to further his opportunities. This was the first time he thought about having a future. Brian expressed interest in getting a job so that he could provide for himself and build his work experience for future job options. Sharon helped her son complete applications online, build a resume and follow up with potential employers. Within two months, Brian was starting his first day working full time for a warehouse near his home.

Sharon noticed that Brian no longer had time to associate with the friends who pressured him to smoke weed or urged him to ditch class or stay out past curfew. He was too involved in establishing a better life for himself that he no longer had the desire to put himself at risk by associating with his neighborhood gang. 

Brian and his family successfully completed MST services in August 2017. Brian’s probation officer notified me in September that Brian was successfully terminated from probation. Sharon’s unconditional support and never-give-up attitude led her to facilitate Brian’s success in a way she had never knew she could. Her dedication to the MST model and trust in me helped ensure that Brian would be a successful and productive adult in society—and not another statistic.

Allison Altwer is an MST Therapist at Sheilds for Families in Los Angeles, California 

Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform