Public Release: 

Bradley Hasbro Research Center to study drug treatment program for girls in court system

Gender-specific intervention for at-risk youth may reduce drug use, STD risk and recidivism rates


PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Marina Tolou-Shams, Ph.D., a psychologist from the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center, has received a $2 million grant to study the efficacy of a drug use intervention for court-involved, non-incarcerated girls who use illicit substances. The study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, will compare the gender-responsive program's effect on reducing drug use and sexual risk behaviors relative to other community-based services that girls are typically referred to by the court.

"Compared to both non-offending girls and male offending counterparts, offending girls are at significantly greater risk for the development of substance use disorders, psychiatric symptoms and negative health outcomes, such as HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted infections," said Tolou-Shams.

The study will enroll 200 Rhode Island Family Court-involved girls between the ages of 12 and 18 in either a gender-responsive drug use treatment program called VOICES, or into other community-based services deemed appropriate and necessary by the court. Tolou-Shams' team will monitor the programs' effects on the girls' drug and alcohol use, HIV/STD risk behaviors, psychiatric symptoms and recidivism over both the short-term (three months post-program completion) and long-term (12 months post-completion).

"Research has demonstrated that girls in the juvenile justice system have different pathways into the system than boys. For example, girls' legal issues are often related to running away, shoplifting and prostitution, versus boys who enter the system for what are perceived as more typical criminal offenses such as breaking and entering or assault," said Tolou-Shams. "This suggests that gender-specific interventions are necessary in order to address the gender-specific risk factors related to future drug use and recidivism for girls versus boys."

The VOICES program was developed by Dr. Stephanie Covington at the California Center for Gender and Justice to address the unique needs of adolescent girls and young women. It is a strengths-based curriculum that incorporates a variety of therapeutic approaches, including psychoeducation, cognitive-behavioral and expressive arts with a goal of empowering girls to discover their "true self" and live happy and healthy lives. Girls in the program use Interactive Journaling as a tool to build empowerment. "Structured journaling is intended to provide a way for girls to creatively express and explore their unique feelings, behaviors and relationships and provide them with an engaging way to apply new concepts and skills," said Tolou-Shams.

The study will also identify the family and community factors that may impact the girls' risk behaviors, such as parent/child communication or neighborhood environment. "Lack of engagement in treatment is a huge barrier to helping these young girls improve their health outcomes," said Tolou-Shams.

Tolou-Shams continued, "We have heard from facilitators across the country who already are implementing VOICES that girls continue to attend the program despite its frequency and intensity of 18 sessions, each 90 minutes long. If the VOICES intervention proves to be both efficacious in reducing juvenile justice girls' drug use and co-occurring sexual risk behaviors and is perceived as more engaging by young girls, then we can feel more confident in continuing to disseminate this much-needed intervention to juvenile justice systems."

Tolou-Shams, who is also director of the Rhode Island Family Court Mental Health Clinic, hopes that the findings from this study can immediately affect the way that practitioners help girls in the court system. "Because VOICES is already a widely disseminated intervention, the results of this trial can have an immediate impact on practice," said Tolou-Shams. Findings from the trial and suggestions for improvement will be immediately translated back to the community where VOICES is implemented via webinars with program sites, written and electronic postings, and web-based trainings.


This study is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse under grant number 1R01DA035231. For more information about this study, please contact the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center at 401-444-8539.

Tolou-Shams' principal affiliation is the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center, a division of the Lifespan health system in Rhode Island. She also has academic appointments at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Departments of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Pediatrics.

About The Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center

Established in 2002, The Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center (BHCRC), located in Providence, R.I, is a collaborative group of nearly 40 child mental health researchers from Bradley Hospital and Hasbro Children's Hospital, both major teaching hospitals for The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Annually, investigators direct more than 50 externally funded projects, and annual external support averages nearly $10 million. The BHCRC encompasses a broad spectrum of research programs - exploring new insights into the genetic roots of autism; finding pediatric bio-behavioral markers of bipolar disorder; creating effective therapies for OCD; devising effective prevention strategies for adolescent sexual risk behaviors and obesity; examining public health strategies for putting evidence based interventions into practice; and many more - that share a commitment to studying the impact of psychological factors on the growth and development of children and their families.

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