Program helps troubled teens, parents work on communication

URBANA — Ethan Monical said he appreciated having a mediator. His parents said they figured out they weren't quite the communicators they thought they were.

All three said the things they learned in the Parenting with Love and Limits program were invaluable.

The intensive six-week-long program for struggling adolescents and their frustrated parents is aimed at keeping those young people out of the juvenile justice system.

Numbers presented last month to the Champaign County Mental Health Board show that the program is enjoying moderate success in Champaign County.

In 2009, the mental health board, using money from the countywide quarter-cent sales tax for public safety, bought the Parenting With Love and Limits (PLL) program developed by Scott Sells, a licensed clinical social worker based in Kansas City.

At the time, it was in use in four states and has since spread to 18.

Sells, who presented an evaluation done by a consultant to the board, said he's tweaked the program along the way in hopes of further reducing repeat criminal behavior and increasing public safety by getting entire families on board with solutions.

The program is intended for "tough kids," he said, not the first-time shoplifter. It can also include the offender's siblings as well as parents.

"They're burned out, overwhelmed; they've been to treatment and it's failed. They're coming for a minimum of six intensive, two-hour sessions in two months. For them to show up is a huge plus," Sells said. "Brief treatment works if it's done correctly."

"Parents like that it's focused on skills and dress rehearsals and not 'How do you feel?'" he said.

For Steve Monical and Kami Whightsil, parents of a 15-year-old son who got arrested at school, it was an eye-opener.

"A lot of it was how we communicate. Kami and I think we're good at disciplining but we really weren't," said Steve Monical, 38, of Champaign. "They had to teach me how to communicate with Ethan better and set limits with him."

Whightsil, 36, of Sidney, added that although she and Monical have been apart about nine years, they remain great friends and consider themselves very good at co-parenting. What was happening with their son suggested otherwise.

"It wasn't just Ethan's problems. All of us had a problem. We were talking at Ethan instead of working together as a team. There was a gap in communication that made him feel like he couldn't talk to us," she said.

"I didn't see it as a problem. I thought it was him being a teenager. I felt like the way he was with his friends and the way he was with me was different. He was trying to distance himself from me like a teen would, trying to assert his independence," she said.

She was right, but the police reports showed Ethan Monical was asserting his independence in a criminal way. After getting involved with another young man with a criminal past, the younger Monical was arrested in February for having a look-alike drug.

State's Attorney Julia Rietz called the family's situation a "perfect PLL case." They began the program in March. After they graduated and Ethan completed a diversion program run by the probation office, his criminal case was dismissed in July, a huge relief to his parents.

"I don't think any kid can fathom the bullet he just dodged. He doesn't understand like his dad and I do the blessing he got bestowed on him. Just being a kid, you're 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Until you get in trouble and they say you are not getting away with it, you don't understand the gravity," Whightsil said.

Ethan admits that back in February when he was busted, "I have to say I really wasn't thinking."

"They helped a lot with that," he said of the PLL counselors, "to think before you do something, to really think about what your actions will do in the long run, too. Your actions have consequences. My parents also helped with that."

And because he's considering the military after high school, he realizes that escaping a criminal conviction "is a very big deal."

He also respected the counselors who ran the program.

"They're very serious but try to take the stress off of you. They understand it's a stressful situation you're in," he said, adding he would recommend the program to a fellow teen in trouble.

"It's a great tool to help you talk with your parents and get your head straight about everything," he said.

The counselors also follow up with families after they have completed the program and are available for troubleshooting. Whightsil said they have taken advantage of that.

She and her ex-husband both said the program gave them new ideas on how to be better parents. Each has a younger child besides Ethan who can benefit from what they learned.

"Since the program, we feel like we're a closer family, said Steve Monical. "I'm doing a better job at listening. That was one of my faults before. I'm being an active listener as opposed to waiting for my turn to talk."

"It has changed the way I parent," added Whightsil. "I'm pointing out the good more than the bad. We all spend so much time pointing out what they've done wrong."

A look at the consulting firm's review

As part of what the county pays for Parenting With Love and Limits came a study of the numbers from the Troy, N.Y.-based firm of Hornby Zeller Associates, a consulting firm that evaluates programs like PLL.

Hornby Zeller analyzed all kinds of statistics such as the races and gender of participants, what kind crimes they were committing, how many graduated, their behavior after and how well they've done one year after the program.

An examination of 155 youths who either graduated or dropped out of the program between April 2009 and December 2011 found:

— The program had a 74 percent graduation rate of the highest risk violent offenders. That demonstrates a high level of parent participation, which, according to Mental Health Board Executive Director Peter Tracy was sorely lacking in programs tried before PLL.

— The program showed dramatic reductions in nearly every problem behavior. Among areas measured were social, thought, attention problems, oppositional and defiant behaviors.

— The program improved family adaptability and cohesion.

— The rate of repeat criminal behavior within a year of treatment was much lower for PLL graduates than those who didn't receive the services, in contacts with police, charges filed and adjudications.

— Length of treatment with PLL is "significantly" shorter than average for both probation and community mental health services.

Click here for a copy of the nine-page evaluation.

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