Uncovering the lived experience of marriage and family therapists working with incarcerated youth: A phenomenological approach

August 2023
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The United States incarcerates the highest proportion of adolescents in the world. Within the population of adolescents who are incarcerated, youth with diagnosable mental illness are overrepresented compared to the general population. Though youth arrest rates have declined greatly since the turn of the 21st century, youth recidivism rates have been consistent for the past 40 years. Existing literature suggests that family therapy for youth has positive impacts on recidivism rates as well as reintegration back into their communities after being released. Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are uniquely trained to deliver therapeutic services which include entire family systems and can support adolescents and their families in reaping the benefits of family therapy in prison settings. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to uncover the lived experience of MFTs as a means of ascertaining a clearer picture of the present state of family therapy being delivered to incarcerated youth by MFTs. Several major themes related to the experiences of Marriage and Family Therapists who have experience working with incarcerated youth emerged through this study: (a) inadequate training, (b) influence of correctional staff, (c) importance of family involvement, (d) influence of employee retention, (e) and development of a growth mindset. Additionally, seven subthemes emerged. The findings of this study may have implications for future research, policy, and practice and are discussed.

marriage and family therapists; youth incarceration; juvenile detention; corrections; criminal justice; family life; family system; juvenile justice; therapists; training; clinical considerations