Multidimensional Family Therapy HIV/STD Risk-
Reduction Intervention: An Integrative Family-
Based Model for Drug-Involved Juvenile Offenders
Drug and juvenile justice involved youths show remarkably high rates of human
immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/sexually transmitteddisease (STD) risk behaviors. However,
existing interventions aimed at reducing adolescent HIV risk behavior have rarely targeted
these vulnerable young adolescents, and many approaches focus on individual-level change
without attention to family or contextual influences. We describe a new, family-based HIV/
STD prevention model that embeds HIV/STD focused multifamily groups within an ado-
lescent drug abuse and delinquency evidence-based treatment, Multidimensional Family
Family Process, Vol. 48, No. 1, 2009 r FPI, Inc.
This study was funded under a cooperative agreement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH/
NIDA). The authors gratefully acknowledge the collaborative contributions by federal staff from NIDA,
members of the Coordinating Centers (University of Maryland at College Park, Bureau of Governmental
Research, and Virginia Commonwealth University; George Mason University), and the nine Research
Center grantees of the NIH/NIDA CJ-DATS Cooperative (Brown University, Lifespan Hospital; Connecticut
Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services; National Development and Research Institutes, Inc.,
Center for Therapeutic Community Research; National Development and Research Institutes, Inc, Center
for the Integration of Research and Practice; Texas Christian University, Institute of Behavioral Research;
University of Delaware, Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies; University of Kentucky, Center on Drug and
Alcohol Research; University of California at Los Angeles, Integrated Substance Abuse Programs; and
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Center for Treatment Research on Adolescent Drug Abuse).
The contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of
NIH/NIDA or other participants in CJ-DATS. We thank the research and clinical teams who implemented
the DTC Study: Craig Henderson, Linda Alberga, Rocio Ungaro, Gayle Dakof, and Dana Becker, and MDFT
therapists Jacqueline Santana, Doris Perdomo-Johnson, Alessandra Marotti, Tim Leverone, Denise
Auffant, Isolda Alonso Cardenas, Christine Garrison, and Daphna Bowman deserve special recognition;
our collaborators, at Here’s Help in Miami-Dade and Pinellas, and in the juvenile detention centers and
juvenile courts of Miami-Dade and Pinellas Counties, Florida. Finally, thanks and gratitude go to the
parents and adolescents who participated in this study.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Howard A. Liddle, Department of
Epidemiology and Public Health, Center for Treatment Research on Adolescent Drug Abuse,
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, 1120 NW 14th Street Stc. 1019, Miami, FL 33136,
USA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
nDepartment of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, FL.
nnEmory University (Emory/Atlanta Center for AIDS Research), Rollins School of Public Health.
Therapy (MDFT). The approach has been evaluated in a multisite randomized clinical trial
with juvenile justice involved youths in the National Institute on Drug Abuse Criminal
Justice Drug Abuse Treatment Studies (www.cjdats.org). Preliminary baseline to 6-month
outcomes are promising. We describe research on family risk and protective factors for
adolescent problem behaviors, and offer a rationale for family-based approaches to reduce
HIV/STD risk in this population. We describe the development and implementation of the
Multidimensional Family Therapy HIV/STD risk-reduction intervention (MDFT-HIV/
STD) in terms of using multifamily groups and their integration in standard MDFT and
also offers a clinical vignette. The potential significance of this empirically based inter-
vention development work is high; MDFT-HIV/STD is the first model to address largely
unmet HIV/STD prevention and sexual health needs of substance abusing juvenile
offenders within the context of a family-oriented evidence-based intervention.
Keywords: HIV/STD Prevention; Juvenile Offenders; Adolescent Substance Abuse;
Multidimensional Family Therapy
Fam Proc 48:69–84, 2009
MULTIDIMENSIONAL FAMILY THERAPYHIV/STDRISK-REDUCTIONINTERVENTION:
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection rates continue to increase among
adolescents, with nearly 6,000 young people worldwide becoming infected with HIV
every day (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, 2004). Incarcerated ado-
lescents may represent the largest concentration of youth infected with or at high risk
for HIV/sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), given frequent drug use and unsafe
sexual behaviors. Drug and juvenile justice involved youths increase risk for acquiring
HIV and STDs through early age at first intercourse, having unprotected anal, oral, or
vaginal intercourse, multiple partners, more permissive attitudes about sex, and low
self-efficacy to practice safe sex (Rosengard, Anderson, & Stein, 2006). The develop-
ment of effective HIV/STD prevention for these youths is a significant and urgent
public health priority (Teplin et al., 2005). Unfortunately, the juvenile justice system
is now the primary source of intervention for many juvenile detainees (American
Academy of Pediatrics: Committee on Pediatrics, 2001), yet existing services designed
to decrease risk behaviors among incarcerated youth tend to be woefully inadequate
(National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA], 2002; Shelton, 2001).
HIV prevention strategies with teens improved considerably in the 1990s, as
comprehensive programs began to address safer-sex intentions, perceptions of risk,
skills building in condom use, and assertive communication, in addition to increasing
HIV/STD knowledge. Some of these behavioral interventions have demonstrated ef-
fects in decreasing adolescents’ high-risk sexual behaviors, yet most have been vali-
dated on school samples or in community health clinic settings, and have rarely been
tested with clinically referred youths at the highest levels of risk for HIV and STD
acquisition. Only four published studies report on interventions targeting substance
abusing juvenile offenders (Magura, Kang, & Shapiro, 1994; Shelton, 2001; Waters,
Morgen, Kuttner, & Schmitt, 1996; Watson, Bisesi, & Tanamly, 2004). The strongest
of these studies (Magura et al., 1994) integrated HIV prevention and drug abuse
treatment for incarcerated teens and demonstrated modest effects on youths’ atti-
tudes about risky sexual behaviors and some self-reported high-risk sexual behaviors.
Considered together, these interventions have not markedly reduced sexual risk-
taking or produced long-term behavioral changes with juvenile offenders (Malow,
Rosenberg, & Devieux, 2006; Pedlow & Carey, 2003), presumably because important
risk factors for HIV acquisition have not been addressed, including family influences
(Donenberg, Paikoff, & Pequegnat, 2006).
Family-Based HIVPrevention Interventions
Evidence-based HIV prevention approaches with adolescents have been almost
exclusively targeted toward the individual level, and most are delivered in peer
groups. However, several reviews have concluded that individual-level interventions
have been unable to sustain behavioral changes, thus more comprehensive and pow-
erful interventions are urgently needed (DiClemente, Salazar, & Crosby, 2007; Malow
et al., 2006; Pedlow & Carey, 2004). Recognizing the importance of parents as the
primary sexuality educators and influences for their children, family context has
emerged as a prominent focus for researchers and health educators (DiClemente,
Crosby, & Salazar, 2006; Donenberg et al., 2006).
Family-based interventions currently have the most consistent empirical support in
the treatment of challenging problems such as adolescent drug abuse and delinquency
(Williams & Chang, 2000), yet high-risk sexual behavior remains an underdeveloped
and insufficiently addressed target problem with these interventions (Perrino, Go-
nzalez-Soldevilla, Pantin, & Szapcznik, 2000). Families are critically important in
shaping adolescents’ decision-making skills and involvement in high-risk behaviors,
and they are a potential source of influence in HIV prevention and intervention
(Pequegnat & Bray, 1997). For Donenberg et al. (2006), families influence adolescents’
HIV risk in four ways: (a) instrumental characteristics (parental monitoring, control);
(b) affective parenting behavior (warmth, support); (c) parental attitudes about sex;
and (d) parent-teen communication. Accordingly, family-based HIV prevention in-
terventions generally target inadequate monitoring, parent-adolescent conflict, and
parental disengagement, all of which have been consistently associated with the
constellation of behaviors associated with HIV/STD risk (St. Lawrence, Jefferson,
Alleyne, & Brasfield, 1995). Family-based HIV prevention also aims to facilitate
supportive family relationships and parent-adolescent communication, which sig-
nificantly reduce HIV risk (Perrino et al., 2000; Kotchick, Dorsey, Miller, & Forehand,
The few existing family-based HIV prevention programs in school and community
settings show significant outcomes in HIV-associated risk factors, including increases
in condom use (DiIorio, McCarty, Resnicow, Lehr, & Denzmore, 2007), parent-ado-
lescent communication and skills (Tapia, Schwartz, Prado, Lopez, & Pantin, 2006),
parenting skills (Murray, Berkel, Brody, Gibbons, & Gibbons, 2007), decreased illicit
drug use (Prado et al., 2007), and intent to or engagement in sexual activity (Dancey,
MARVEL, ROWE, COLON-PEREZ, DICLEMENTE, & LIDDLE
Fam. Proc., Vol. 48, March, 2009
Crittenden, & Talashek, 2006; McBride et al., 2007). Additionally, family-based ap-
proaches can be delivered over a range of ages (11–18), settings, delivery formats, and
have been successfully adapted for different cultural groups (e.g., Prado et al., 2007).
However, none of these interventions have been developed for or tested with youths in
juvenile justice settings, and they have generally focused only on changing HIV-as-
sociated risk behaviors. There are strong recommendations from public health experts
about the importance of concurrently addressing substance abuse, HIV risk, and
criminal activity among juvenile offenders (Drug Strategies, 2005; Teplin et al., 2005).
The‘‘Detentionto Community’’Drug Abuseand HIV/STDRisk Reduction Study
To address these gaps in the existing research on comprehensive family-based in-
terventions to reduce drug abuse, delinquency, and HIV/STD risk among incarcerated
youths, the ‘‘Detention to Community’’ study was initiated as part of the NIDA
Criminal Justice Drug Abuse Treatment Studies cooperative research program (Lid-
dle, Rowe, Dakof, Henderson, & Greenbaum, 2008). This study is a two-site ran-
domized trial, which tests a cross-systems, family-based, drug abuse, delinquency, and
HIV/STD intervention for juvenile offenders in detention and as they return home.
HIV/STD-focused multifamily groups were embedded within an established family-
based adolescent substance abuse and delinquency treatment, multidimensional
family therapy (MDFT; Liddle, 2009). MDFT was considered a promising approach for
this kind of intervention development based on its demonstrated efficacy in a series of
randomized clinical trials in reducing substance use and delinquency with juvenile
justice involved adolescents (Dennis et al., 2004; Liddle & Dakof, 2002; Liddle et al.,
2001; Liddle, Dakof, Turner, Henderson, & Greenbaum, in press; Liddle et al., 2009).
Based on MDFT intervention principles of change and clinical techniques, the inter-
vention taps the power of families to reduce teens’ risk for HIV/STD infection. For this
study, the treatment varied from previous versions of MDFT in three critical di-
mensions: (1) service delivery commenced in detention; (2) MDFT treatment coordi-
nated services across justice and community treatment systems; and (3) the MDFT-
HIV/STD prevention module was integrated during the course of MDFT.
While 9-month follow-up data collection is still ongoing, interim analyses have been
conducted on the 154 study participants on the following HIV related outcomes: (1)
proportion of times using a condom to times having sex, (2) STD incidence, and (3)
HIV-related communication skills. Participants entered the study at relatively high
risk for exposure to STDs, with 74% of participants at intake engaging in moderate to
high-risk behaviors over the previous 90 days before their detention stay, and 11% of
the sample testing positive for an STD at detention release. Preliminary results of
intake to 6-month follow-up data suggest that MDFT-HIV is a promising HIV risk
reduction intervention (Liddle et al., in press). For example, between intake and the 6-
month follow-up assessment, youths randomly assigned to MDFT reported more open
conversations with their sex partners about HIV/AIDS and safe-sex practices than
participants who received services as usual (d¼.40, moderate effect). Adolescents in
MDFT also reported a greater increase in protected sex acts (d¼.65, moderate-large
effect), and MDFT participants’ risks for STD exposure decreased more rapidly than
for youths receiving services as usual (d¼.80, large effect). Most importantly, de-
creased risk for exposure in MDFT translated to decreases in STD incidence rates
(measured by biologically analyzed urine samples, d¼.53, moderate effect). If these
trends persist through the study’s duration, this would be the only family-based in-
tervention to demonstrate a reduction in laboratory-confirmed STD incidence
(DiClemente et al., 2004; Jemmott, Jemmott, Braverman, & Fong, 2005). Although
preliminary, these interim analyses suggest that the MDFT-HIV/STD approach has
This article describes the development and piloting of this innovative family-based
HIV prevention approach and illustrates its implementation in practice.
Phase1:Developingand Pilotingthe MDFT-HIV/STDIntervention
MDFT has been recognized as an effective intervention in a new generation of
comprehensive, multicomponent treatments for adolescent drug abuse and delin-
quency. This multidimensional approach assumes that reductions in target symptoms
and increases in prosocial target behaviors occur via multiple pathways, in differing
contexts, and through different mechanisms. The format of MDFT has been modified
to suit the clinical needs of different clinical populations. A full course of MDFT is
delivered in several sessions each week over 4–6 months. Sessions may be held in a
variety of contexts including in the home, clinic, detention center, other community
settings (school), or phone. The MDFT treatment system assesses and intervenes into
four main areas: the adolescent as an individual, the parents as a subsystem, the
family interactional system, and the extrafamilial system (family members’ interac-
tions and relationships with influential systems outside of the family like the court).
Assessment of functioning in each of these areas is followed by interventions into
these same domains. Interventions are developmentally based and oriented, targeting
a realignment of normative developmental processes in the individual, family, peer,
and other systems. They all aim to address risk and protection within each domain,
and as functioning in each of these areas improves, new behaviors are used to promote
further change in other areas (Liddle, 2004).
MDFT-HIV/STD intervention development had two main steps: first, to develop the
new HIV/STD prevention multifamily groups focusing specifically on reducing sexual
risk taking behaviors (the first multifamily groups developed in MDFT); and second,
to integrate this work into the ongoing MDFT adolescent, parent, and family sessions.
Over a 6-month collaborative, iterative process, we worked to develop protocols based
on our collective clinical (family-based interventions and HIV prevention interven-
tions) and research experience. We developed the manual for the new HIV/STD
multifamily component to train and pilot the intervention with community therapists.
Phase 2:Training,Piloting, and Recalibrating MDFT-HIV/STDInterventionand Training
Therapists from community-based drug treatment agencies who were already
trained to deliver MDFT received additional training in the MDFT-HIV/STD proto-
cols. Training sessions provided a review of the session activities, group facilitation
techniques, cultural considerations, resources on current sexual health issues, and the
basic background in STDs and HIV and STD testing procedures.
MARVEL, ROWE, COLON-PEREZ, DICLEMENTE, & LIDDLE
Fam. Proc., Vol. 48, March, 2009
Piloting and Recalibrating
The original MDFT-HIV/STD intervention was pilot-tested by these community-
based MDFT therapists with adolescents and families in Miami, FL, and Tampa, FL,
to determine the feasibility of conducting this intervention in the community and to
recalibrate and improve the protocols. Several key modifications included providing
more skills-based condom activities and additional condom skills/knowledge activities
designed to elicit and dispel misconceptions. The intervention was adapted to provide
more in-depth information about HIV/STDsFnot just the basicsFbecause we found
that these juvenile-justice-involved, drug-using adolescents already had fundamental
HIV/STD knowledge from health class/sex education. Pilot testing also showed that
in addition to discussing long-term consequences such as risk for sterility, cancer, or
death, the short-term consequences needed to be emphasized as much if not more
soFsuch as the need to see doctors and take pills if one contracts an STD, the physical
symptoms, and ‘‘unattractive’’ immediate consequences of STDs (e.g., visible sores).
Refinements of the approach also included increased use of multimedia (videos) for
interactivity and emotional engagement.
Phase 3:Integrating Cultural Sensitivityand Competenceinto MDFT-HIV/STD
Because cultural considerations have been a core focus in the development, testing,
and implementation of MDFT, they also are important in the MDFT-HIV module.
MDFT has been extensively tested with African Americans, and the key cultural
themes found to be important in working with African Americans were translated into
the integrative family-based HIV prevention approach. For example, a core cultural
theme important in MDFT treatment with African American boys is using the youth’s
journey ‘‘from boyhood to manhood’’ (Jackson-Gilfort, Liddle, Tejeda, & Dakof, 2001;
Liddle, Jackson-Gilfort, & Marvel, 2006), and this theme also became salient in dis-
cussions about sexuality, intimacy, and having more mature, responsible relationships
that demonstrated respect for themselves and their partners.
Developing and testing MDFT-HIV in South Florida also necessitated the creation
of a culturally congruent Spanish version of the MDFT-HIV/STD prevention inter-
vention. All facilitator protocols, participant handouts, videos, and materials were
translated into Spanish. Facilitators who were bilingual were trained to deliver this
culturally competent HIV/STD prevention to Hispanic American adolescents and
families. Facilitators were trained to be responsive to treatment barriers. For in-
stance, many Hispanic parents felt uncomfortable talking with their children about
sexual health matters. In piloting, facilitators found that Hispanic families needed
more assistance to break the silence about sexual risk-taking and also needed to be
updated and more knowledgeable about teens’ sexual health and relationships. Fa-
cilitators were sensitive to these issues and conscious about parents’ potential diffi-
culties participating in the discussions and activities.
MULTIDIMENSIONAL FAMILY THERAPYHIV/STDRISK-REDUCTIONINTERVENTION
Next we describe the final protocols that were integrated within the MDFT inter-
vention. Youth and their parents who have already been engaged in MDFT and have
been in therapy for 1 to 2 months participate in three 2-hour multifamily groups de-
signed to: (1) enhance adolescents’ and parents’ awareness about the nature of STDs
and HIV, (2) personalize their sexual and drug-associated risk behaviors that increase
adolescents’ likelihood for exposure and infection with HIV/STDs, and (3) provide
communication (parent(s) and partner) and condom-use skills for HIV/STD preven-
tion. Homework is given at the end of multifamily group sessions 1 and 2 for the
parents and teens to do together between sessions to bridge and provide continuity
between the groups. The third session assists families in developing an action plan to
reduce risk based on their new knowledge, skills, and open lines of communication,
and ends with a ‘‘pledge for life,’’ which is a commitment from both parents and teens
to do everything possibleFtogetherFto help the teen remain safe from HIV/STDs.
Session1:Be Real About Your Risk
The first multifamily group begins with an introduction (‘‘Getting Started’’) where
the facilitators engage families with the MDFT ‘‘what’s in this for you’’ technique and
create a friendly and comfortable environment. The second activity (‘‘What do you
know about HIV/AIDS and other STDs’’) addresses gaps in HIV/STD knowledge,
dispels myths and misconceptions about transmission and treatment, encourages
abstinence and, for those youth who are sexually active, promotes STD/HIV-preven-
tive sex and drug practices. Following the introduction and psycho-educational con-
tent, facilitators focus on personalizing teens’ risk for HIV and STDs. Although most
teenagers say they know that unprotected sex carries a high risk of infection, they feel
confident that they are not at risk (likewise parents think ‘‘this couldn’t happen to my
child’’) so it is important to make the risk personal for the teens and parents. This is
achieved by watching a stirring documentary (Bloodlines; Jako & Guberman, 2005)
produced and directed by HIV-positive youth who share their personal stories about
life with HIV. It is culturally, gender, and age appropriate; it clarifies, amplifies, and
reinforces prevention education. Using the emotional momentum from the Bloodlines
video, the next activity (‘‘Be Real About Your Teen’s Risk’’) provides a concrete way
for the adolescents and parents to recognize which risky behaviors the adolescent is
engaging in currently or has engaged in the past. This written activity also prepares
them for the next group activities focused on improving parent-adolescent commu-
nication and working as a family to keep the teen safe and healthy.
Session 2:Family Makesa Difference
Multifamily group 2 focuses on opening lines of communication between teens and
parents about sexual risk behaviors and practical ways to reduce risk. The session
begins with a review of session 1 and the homework (‘‘It could happen to you’’), an
assignment that further personalizes the teen’s risk by having parents and teens read
together an interview with Magic Johnson about his experience living with HIV and
discussing structured questions. Teens and parents then think back to the first ses-
sion, specifically the ‘‘be real about your risk’’ activity and they discuss how parents
can help teens understand and deal with risky situations. After this short discussion,
teens think about a risky situation that they commonly face and develop a realistic
plan with their parents to reduce their risk. The remainder of the second multifamily
group focuses on how to improve communication about sexual practices and risky
situations, and defining barriers to open communication about these difficult topics.
Parents and teens discuss strengthening family communication, tools for effective
MARVEL, ROWE, COLON-PEREZ, DICLEMENTE, & LIDDLE
Fam. Proc., Vol. 48, March, 2009
communication, common barriers and how to circumvent them, and what to expect
from each other in dialogue. At the end of the session, families are asked to complete a
Family Plan to address the most significant barriers to their communication. Their
assignment is to put this plan into action before the next session and come prepared to
discuss what did and did not work in implementing their plan.
Session 3:Let’s Makeit Happen
In session 3, activities focus on reinforcing the youths’ positive sexual health
behaviors, attitudes, and skills, and formalizing a clear family plan that will help
teens make healthy choices ‘‘in the heat of the moment.’’ A major focus is further
strengthening parent-adolescent communication and, for teens, improving partner
communication about safer sex practices. The parents and teens participate in a
hands-on activity with penis models to learn and apply proper condom use skills,
emphasizing parental support of these attitudes and skills. The hands-on work with
condoms using penis models breaks down barriers to openly discuss issues. Parents
sometimes express discomfort at the outset, but afterward, many have stated, ‘‘if I
can do that [work with penis models in front of my child], I can do and talk about
anything!’’ Parents have also described increased comfort with their teenagers; they
are able to talk openly about sex and ask their son/daughter questions. Adolescents
begin to understand that parents are not interfering, but want them to be safe in
sexual relationships. Teenagers acknowledge that parents cannot be around ‘‘24/7,’’
but they may feel better knowing that they can talk about sex, their questions and
uncertainties, and the inherent risks. Teens then participate in another action-ori-
ented activity called ‘‘In the Heat of the Moment’’ using a video vignette of a risky
sexual encounter to stimulate role playing (two young teens who are drinking at a
party struggle with the decision of having unprotected sex). This activity encourages
better decision-making skills and assertive communication as adolescents practice
their newly learned skills. The final activity (‘‘Pledge for Life and Certificate of
Achievement’’) reviews the core themes and formalizes the family’s commitment to
change. These identified plans for action are brought into the ongoing MDFT work.
Integrationof MDFT-HIV/STDinterventionintothe MDFTCore Approach
MDFT aims to promote adolescents’ healthy development in all domains of func-
tioning, including sexual relationships and behavior. Adolescents are encouraged to
take responsibility for their sexual practices and protect themselves from contracting
HIV and other STDs. The focus on the adolescents’ sexual practices is conceptualized
as part of a movement toward health and respect for self in both body and mind, and
this is consistent with our stance regarding drug use. Building on the HIV/STD
multifamily groups, MDFT therapists address HIV/STD prevention in ongoing ado-
lescent, parent, and family sessions (the entire course of therapy ranges from 4 to 6
months), deepening the knowledge and skills learned in the groups. Therapists re-
inforce and role-play how teens will apply their new knowledge in new or difficult
situations. This work is linked to other aspects of the adolescent’s move toward health
and self-care, including a focus on drug use and its consequences. The HIV/STD
prevention module attends specifically to the teen’s sexual behavior but is organized
within the guiding therapeutic plan, which involves the systematic exploration
of personally meaningful life themes. Therapists orchestrate multifamily groups,
individual, and family sessions about high-risk behaviors and sexuality in a coherent
way to facilitate a movement toward a healthier lifestyle.
There are three main aspects of integrating the MDFT-HIV/STD focus into ongoing
MDFT. First, approximately 1 month into treatment, the therapist explains in family
and individual sessions the rationale of the MDFT-HIV/STD multifamily group ses-
sions to prepare the adolescent and parent for maximum benefit. Families need to
understand the group objectives and what to expect (working with penis models,
having conversations about risky behaviors, etc.) and how these sessions are different
from standard health education classes. The therapist emphasizes that the groups will
empower parents and enhance their ability to influence their child, that there may be
generational differences in sexual activity they need to better understand, and also
that substance abuse heightens a teen’s risk for HIV/STD. Second, the three multi-
family group sessions described above are delivered between 1 and 2 months into
treatment. Finally, between the multifamily groups and following the third group,
therapists integrate the themes and experiences into ongoing adolescent, parent, and
family sessions, tracking progress and the family’s behavior change plan. See Figure 1
for a flow diagram of the overall MDFT-HIV/STD intervention within MDFT treatment.
This case study illustrates how the MDFT-HIV/STD interventions are integrated
into the overall flow of the MDFT therapy with substance abusing juvenile justice
involved teens. Danny, one of three children, was a 16-year old African American male
who was in juvenile detention. When he started treatment, Danny was drinking
heavily, truant from school, fighting, selling drugs, and associating with negative
peers. He had violent fights with his brother, prompting his mother to call the police,
and leading to his arrest and incarceration. Danny had experienced severe physical
discipline from his father throughout his childhood. The violence and conflict within
the family prompted Danny to run away from home on several occasions. Danny’s
feelings of anger and helplessness about his family conflict were compounded by
deepening academic and social failure. Increasingly he turned to alcohol and drugs for
Mrs. Williams, Danny’s mother, divorced Danny’s father when he was 12 and the
violence in the home had become severe. She was heavily burdened by the demands of
raising three adolescents alone and working long hours as a nurse in a busy inner-city
hospital. She felt exhausted and drained from the competing demands of single par-
enthood and her career, and was overwhelmed by Danny’s worsening problems in
school and his increasing involvement with drugs and crime. She had almost given up
on Danny by the time they started treatment.
As Mrs. Williams and Danny shared their different perspectives during family
sessions, the therapist thought that the severe mother-son disconnection, father’s
absence, and violence within the family had seriously compromised Danny’s devel-
opment. Danny’s disposition had become more negative, angry, and distanced from his
mother, who had virtually given up any attempts to influence him. His father had no
contact with the family at all after the difficult divorce 4 years before the start of
MARVEL, ROWE, COLON-PEREZ, DICLEMENTE, & LIDDLE
Fam. Proc., Vol. 48, March, 2009
treatment. Danny had managed to take care of himself in some ways, but he was also
drinking, selling drugs, and associating with drug using, delinquent friends. His
hopelessness about having any kind of positive relationship with his parents or sense
of acceptance in his family was exacerbated by serious difficulties in school. This
downward spiral of mutually reinforcing negative risk factors worsened when he was
transferred to an ‘‘alternative school’’ for behavior problem teens. Danny skipped
classes, fought frequently, and increased his cannabis use.
MDFT Core Treatment
1–2 months: Therapist focuses on adolescent and parent individual
functioning, family functioning, and teen and parent vis a vis important social
systems such as school and juvenile justice (MDFT manual, Liddle 2002).
Phase One: Pre-Group Preparatory Session(s)
Therapist focuses on creating a sense of urgency and preparing adolescent
and parents for what to expect in group session. Explain rationale and use
MDFT technique “what’s in this for you?” for adolescents - and parents “you
are the medicine” approach. Address “barriers” to productive participation
Parents may not want to discuss sexual topics in general; personal,
moral, or religious beliefs that adolescent premarital sex is wrong;
concerns that discussing sexuality and “safe sex” may promote
adolescent sexual activity
A lack of knowledge regarding the risks of various behaviors
A lack of open and honest communication skills
Adolescents may be uncomfortable about talking about sex with
parents and being open and honest about sexual behavior
Comfort level problems with moving past surface level conversation
to focus on the more intimate and personal issues of sexuality
Phase Two: MDFT-HIV/STD Multi-Family Groups
1 month: In three multi-family groups, facilitators use structured and specific
protocols for targeting HIV risk, emphasis on parent involved and skill
focused HIV risk attitudes and behaviors. Therapist takes a non-judgmental
approach and comes from the perspective/stance of a sexual health “expert.”
Phase Three: Follow-up Session(s) on MDFT-HIV/STD
Family Sessions. Therapist elicits feedback on the sessions from family,
discussion of the progress made, and the family’s behavior change plan.
Therapist follows up about “actions” parents are taking to help keep the teen
safe like providing an easy access to condoms for their adolescent. The
therapist uses the communication skills learned in group session to help
adolescent open up about other relevant topics – school, drugs, peers, sex.
MDFT treatment continues approximately 2 months
Multiple Family Group
Adolescent, Parent, and Family
Adolescent, Parent, and Family Sessions
FIGURE1. Integration of MDFT-HIV/STD Component in MDFT Treatment. MDFT, Multidimen-
sional Family Therapy; HIV, Human Immunodeficiency virus; STD, Sexually Transmitted Disease
Primary goals with Danny were to transform his alcohol use and drug selling
lifestyle into a more adaptive, prosocial, and developmentally normal life. This in-
cluded helping Danny to practice safer sex and adopt better self-care skills, changing
his involvement with drug using friends, improving his school performance and be-
havior, facilitating more mature and deeper self-examination and self-expression to
more effectively get his needs met, and generating hope that his life could change. For
both Danny and his mom, main goals of treatment were reducing the emotional dis-
tance and negativity in their relationship and facilitating open communication about
core issues (i.e., sexual health, peers, substance abuse, family conflicts, and school).
Treatment goals also included reducing the conflict between Danny and his brother,
and the therapist brought Danny’s brother into sessions to directly address the ten-
sion between them. In working with Mrs. Williams individually, an important goal
was to help her change her negative perceptions of and interactions with Danny by
resuscitating more positive, hopeful feelings and appreciation for him. The therapist
used time alone with Mrs. Williams to help her reclaim positive memories of her son,
amplify expressions of her love for him, and explore her dreams about the man
he could be. These discussions helped Mrs. Williams recommit to helping Danny. The
therapist could then help Mrs. Williams improve her parenting practices, including
monitoring, limit setting, and persistence in being actively involved in his life.
MDFT-HIV/STDIntervention Phase1:Pregroup Preparatory Sessions
Mrs. Williams, a practicing nurse, knew the dangers of STDs and the incidence
rates among young people, and realized it was important to open up lines of com-
munication with Danny about his sexual practices. She was concerned that Danny’s
girlfriend Tina was promiscuous and lacked safe sex skills and knowledge, and could
put her son at risk for contracting STD/HIV infection. At the same time, given their
conflict in so many areas, she felt uncomfortable communicating with Danny about his
sexual health and his relationship with Tina.
At first, Danny was not open to learning about HIV/STDs or safer sex behaviors.
Danny resented his mother’s mistrust of Tina and believed that she would not cheat
on him. When the therapist introduced the idea of participating in multifamily groups
focusing on sexual health, Mrs. Williams immediately recognized the opportunity the
multifamily groups offered to talk to her son and influence him to take better care
of himself. The therapist taught Danny that there were valuable tips he could learn to
reassure himself and his mother that he was taking better care of himself. Individual
sessions with the adolescent and parent were used to prepare them for the multifamily
HIV/STD groups, and in family session the week before the first multifamily group,
the therapist went into detail about the structure, format, and activities of the group.
Due in part to positive changes in the relationship between Danny, his mother, and his
school situation, both agreed to give the groups a try.
MDFT-HIV/STDIntervention Phase 2:Multifamily Group Intervention
Throughout the multifamily group sessions, Danny and his mother actively par-
ticipated, but the turning point came in an activity called ‘‘Be Real about Your (Your
Teen’s) Risk.’’ In this activity, the adolescent indicates his/her level of personal risk
based on the number of their HIV high-risk activities such as ‘‘I have had vaginal and/
MARVEL, ROWE, COLON-PEREZ, DICLEMENTE, & LIDDLE
Fam. Proc., Vol. 48, March, 2009
or anal sex without a condom.’’ The parent rates the adolescent’s risk on the same
items (e.g., ‘‘My teen has had unprotected vaginal and/or anal sex without a condom.’’)
and the teen and parent then share their assessments with each other. This activity
was challenging for Danny and his mother, given that they had rarely talked openly
about his sexual attitudes and behaviors. Mrs. Williams assumed he was at risk for
several of the risky activities, but it became clear to her that she did not know the full
extent of his serious HIV/STD-associated risk behaviors. When Mrs. Williams exam-
ined Danny’s responses, she realized that he was being open and honest with her
about his sexual risk behavior, and she knew it would have been easier for him to keep
it hidden, like he did with so many problems in his life, to avoid confrontation. She was
frightened by his involvement in such high-risk sexual behaviors and, based on this
concern, was able to communicate in a loving and caring way, rather than taking a
blaming or critical stand. She told him in the group that these behaviors were not good
for him and that she wanted to help him. Her son appreciated his mom’s nonjudg-
mental and caring response. Thus ‘‘personalizing the risk’’ had the intended impact
on both Danny and his mother, establishing a level of emotional reconnection that
would be necessary for them to start problem solving and working together to reduce
MDFT-HIV/STDIntervention Phase 3:Follow-UpFamily Sessions
After completing the multifamily groups, Danny and his mother experienced a new
level of connection. The more positive, accepting, and receptive atmosphere between
Danny and his mother enabled more constructive interactions around Danny’s
drinking, the negative peers in the house, his girlfriend, and school. Sessions were
more productive because the family had experienced each other in a new, more loving
and caring way; this reduced the blame and negativity of previous sessions. Danny
reported feeling his mom genuinely cared and wanted to help him, thus he let her help
him and opened up his world to her. Likewise, his mother felt like she could help him
and that he would listen and respect her. When Danny and his mother slipped back
into previous critical patterns, the therapist could reclaim the momentum established
in the groups and subsequent sessions, helping them stay in a productive place.
As follow-up on the risk behaviors uncovered in the groups, ongoing sessions
focused on reducing these risk behaviors. The first step was to challenge Danny’s
conviction that Tina had been faithful and that he could not have been exposed to an
STD. Danny agreed to be tested and in fact was positive for an STD. Unlike in the past
when he would have been secretive about his problems and personal life, Danny im-
mediately (and on his own volition) brought this situation to his mother for her help
and guidance. Mrs. Williams used a distinctively different communication style, not
blaming or attacking him but being compassionate, supportive, and proactive about
Danny’s STD infection. After helping Danny receive the appropriate STD treatment,
she used this ‘‘teachable moment’’ to discuss condom-use skills and trust issues in
relationships with her son. At Danny’s request, the therapist provided him with
condoms and his mother was fully supportive of this new health conscious behavior.
Danny also came to realize that the relationship with his girlfriend had jeopardized his
health and broken his trust, both of which were grounds for him to end the rela-
tionship, which he did. Danny and his mother continued to make excellent progress
for the final 2 months of therapy, and the therapist leveraged Mrs. Williams’ proactive
stance about the STD with his other risk behaviors, including his alcohol and drug
use. The family conflict decreased, problems at school decreased significantly, and by
the end of treatment Danny was not using drugs and free of STD infection.
Given juvenile offenders’ vulnerability for a range of negative outcomes, including
STD and HIV infection, and the inadequacies of the care they receive in the juvenile
justice system, there is an urgent and well documented need to implement effective
evidence-based interventions with these adolescents (CASA, 2004; Teplin et al., 2005).
Research shows that effective interventions for young offenders incorporate: (1)
comprehensive attention to the diversity of clinical needs with which justice-involved
youth present; (2) services, support, and supervision that ‘‘wrap around’’ an adoles-
cent and family in an individualized way; and (3) family involvement (Drug Strategies,
2005). Unfortunately, existing interventions with youth in the juvenile justice system
rarely incorporate these elements (CASA, 2004; Lederman, Dakof, Larrea, & Li, 2004;
Nissen, Butts, Merrigan, & Kraft, 2006). Comprehensive family-based treatments
have shown their effectiveness in clinical studies with drug abusing and delinquent
teens in a range of practice settings (Henggeler et al., 1997; Liddle et al., 2006).
However, previous to the development of this approach and its testing in the DTC
study, existing evidence-based family-focused models had not systematically in-
corporated HIV/STD prevention. This article described the latest advances in devel-
oping more effective HIV/STD prevention for juvenile justice-involved, substance-
abusing teens utilizing a concept and process with a strong tradition in family ther-
apyFthe healing power of families to reduce the behavioral risk in their children.
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