By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications

TJJD researchers conducted focus group meetings with youth at the Giddings State School this month.

COG Focus Group

The purpose was to get feedback from youths who had completed the therapeutic Capital and Serious Violent Offender Group program, also known as COG. COG is a series of therapy sessions in which therapists and youth meet in a group over several months. The goal is to help the youth better understand how the events of their life relate to how they came to be incarcerated -- n effect, to see how their “life story” resulted in their “crime story,” as it’s called in the sessions. COG is run by treatment professionals who see the youth regularly.

“The capital offender program has been around since 1988,” said Dr. Evan Norton, TJJD Sr. Director of Integrated Treatment and Intervention Services. “It was designed by psychologists to look at how a kid’s life story impacts their crime story. It works on identifying unmet needs that create future offending cycles. The key to this is incorporating lived experience. Getting the youths’ voice in our treatment program is very important.” 

“The model, while it gets updated over time to fit the times, remains largely unchanged in its analysis and effectiveness,” Norton said. “The data supports that it’s a helpful program.” 

Still, TJJD treatment professionals want to make sure that “all elements of the program are trauma-informed and we’re doing the best we can with credible messengers and lived experience,” Norton said.

A “credible messenger” is someone who has been incarcerated. Their insight from their experiences can help keep the program up to date.

That’s where the focus groups come in. The research team wanted to get the youths’ viewpoints to help treatment staff make the COG program as effective as possible and be informed by the youths’ experiences.

Spencer Washington, Clinical Director for Forensic Mental Health Services at Giddings State School oversaw the focus group and Alejandro Ramirez-Cano, a research specialist with the treatment team, and Claire Boudrot, a research specialist with the research team, conducted it. 

“We’re looking to continue to modernize the program with the latest research available,” Norton said. “A big piece of taking this to the next level is ensuring that people with lived experience and youth voice is incorporated. That’s why we hold focus groups to hear directly from the youth. How was this helpful? What do they need/ How can this be better?”

“I think it’s so important and valuable to be getting honest feedback from the youth,” Boudrot said. “We ask if they’re getting what they think they need to get out of COG. We want to do everything we can to make sure the main points of COG are being reached and making sure everything is being directly communicated.” 

“Getting youth voices in our treatment program is very important,” Norton said.

“The youth are often eager to talk, but understandably have difficulty in knowing who they can trust,” said Ramirez-Cano. During the focus group at Giddings, two of the youth said there were only a small number of the staff they trusted for fear that telling their story would lead to future reprisals.

“By the time the youth have completed the program, they tend to be more open when it comes to sharing their experiences and opinions,” Ramirez-Cano said. “This has given the staff valuable insight for updating the program as well as finding better ways to run the focus groups.”

“In preparation for the focus group, I have a script that I’ll stick to, but there will be questions that present themselves along the way,” Ramirez-Cano continued. “I think the things they said that I could relate to personally surprised me. One youth told me we don’t ask the right questions. That stuck with me. So, we dig deeper, we ask them what they think we should be asking them.”

The list of youth selected to participate in these focus groups included those who have completed COG, are enrolled in COG, or are out on parole. The staff stresses the importance of getting as many different perspectives and points of view as they can.

One youth in the focus group said he found it difficult to open up to someone who wouldn’t be sharing anything from their own life in return. The other youths agreed with this sentiment. Washington explained to the group that while there were ethical and professional reasons for therapists not sharing their life stories, keeping the focus on the youth during their session was the foremost consideration.  

The focus group gives the youth the chance to share what they liked and didn’t like about the program “It was great to learn where the disconnectbetween the youth and the therapists was on some elements,” Boudrot said. “Mr. Washington was reminding us ‘This is how this was supposed to go, but the youth weren’t seeing it that way’, and that’s exactly what we need to be getting at.”

Overall, the staff seemed encouraged by the results of the focus group. “I thought it went great,” Ramirez-Cano said.

The process continues and the data and feedback from these focus groups will help the staff move forward with refinements to the COG program.

“Initially, a lot of these kids are scared to get into (COG) therapy,” Norton said. “They’re scared to get into treatment. And it’s incredible to see the transformation over the six to nine months they’re in this program. They are more confident, more resilient, they have better skills. They end up being mentors on the facility a lot of the time and helping their peers see that engaging in therapy is a good thing.”