Brandon came into our Youth Probation office with the bravado of a Sopranos’ character. He had strong handsome features and he was highly athletic. He commanded a presence. Brandon was charged with trafficking cocaine and he was connected to a local gang. He was impeccably dressed and everything about him alluded to power and presence. Brandon didn’t use drugs; he just sold them, and he was working his way to becoming a true gangster.
This was not a typical case. Nor was it easy even though I was an experienced Probation Officer. I admit, I first tried the typical “strong arm” authoritarian approach. But Brandon defiantly opposed authority. About that time, I was introduced to a different approach. Youth Justice Services had been working with the Centre for Addictions Research of BC to develop a new resource. AME (which stands for awareness, motivation and engagement) uses the techniques of motivational interviewing (MI) to help young people explore what they want from life (rather than telling them what they need to do). After attending training in MI with Rob Axen, my approach with Brandon took a 180 degree turn. He began to trust me. He opened up more, and we had some amazing conversations. Finally, he was ready to look at changing his life.
Brandon started to talk about his dreams and his future. He disclosed that he wanted a wife and children. I quickly latched onto that prosocial cue and used it in most of our discussions as the carrot to his success. He quickly began to look at the pros and cons of staying in the drug business and how that might interfere with his dreams. He became more concerned about the potential dangers to his future family and how others would perceive him when he was with his children. Eventually Brandon’s “change talk” was centered on the reasons why he should not be a drug dealer.
The process of attempting to change his life was both dangerous and difficult for Brandon. It is not easy walking away from a gang and starting over. I helped Brandon build on his confidence as an athlete and a son and a big brother. He gained his strength and started to create a plan, working with his family who supported him. Brandon made a decision to leave the province and live in eastern Canada. He had other family who could support him there and his parents were willing to assist with finding an apartment. He made the move, found a place to live independently, and obtained a legitimate job.
I continued to supervise Brandon by phone in the final months of his order. Brandon went on to be successful in his life. He is in his mid-20s now and his mother continues to send me a Christmas card every year letting me know how well her son is doing. This change in Brandon did not happen overnight. It meant learning to change my own approach. It meant having access to new resources and training opportunities. All of this eventually helped Brandon see a new life. And me? I have been hooked on MI ever since.
Author: Karen Oddy, Kelowna Youth Probation
**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.