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Richard Doty
Media Relations

Thomas Sexton
School of Education

Last modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

IU functional family therapy program aids troubled youth locally and nationally

A nationally recognized and innovative program to aid troubled youth is headquartered at the Indiana University School of Education and helping teenagers both locally and nationwide.

Family psychologist and Professor Thomas Sexton directs the Center for Adolescent and Family Studies at IU Bloomington that uses functional family therapy in a joint project with the Monroe Circuit Court and Monroe County Probation Department.

"This project is designed to assist at-risk adolescents and their families struggling with problems of conduct, drug abuse and delinquency," Sexton explained. "The key to the program is we treat the entire family as the client, not just the child. We focus on the family while being respectful of individual, cultural and ethnic differences."

He said functional family therapy is very effective, with studies showing a reduction in recidivism of 40 to 60 percent for the teenagers involved. Cost savings for the program also are substantial. In general, Sexton said, for every dollar invested in functional family therapy, there is a $14 savings in legal system and crime victim costs.

The IU faculty member, who has been working with functional family therapy for 15 years, said the program headquartered at IU Bloomington has community practice sites throughout the United States. "We have become a national center and work in 125 communities nationwide that are as varied as rural Utah and the Philadelphia inner city," he said, adding that some 1,000 practitioners have been trained to assist an estimated 50,000 families.

Sexton, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology, said the Bloomington program has helped some 60 local families during the past two years through the functional family therapy clinic, which is staffed by graduate students in counseling psychology and supervised by a licensed psychologist. The free program is short-term, usually involving 12 to 14 sessions over a three-to-six-month period. "This program is a win for both the School of Education and the community because it allows us to take what we are good at into the community to benefit troubled families in need of help," he said.

The surgeon general of the United States identified functional family therapy as one of four top-level programs that work with troubled children. The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have praised functional family therapy as among 11 out of l,000 programs nationwide that work effectively with troubled youth.

Judge Viola Taliaferro of the Circuit Court in Bloomington expressed strong support for the program. "Functional family therapy has been a blessing for us because it incorporates a family approach where those involved can work through their problems in a non-threatening environment. It is a wonderful partnership between IU and the court system," she said.

Christine McAfee, juvenile division supervisor for the Monroe County Probation Department, expressed similar feelings. "This program teaches families to become independent, self-reliant and self-sustaining. They aren't talking about the issues; they are actually working the issues. This allows them to feel and be successful while motivating them to change," she said.

For more information on this project, contact Sexton at 812-856-8350 or