Mar 14, 2011, 12:59

By Dustin Tibbitts, LMFT

March 14, 2011

Dustin Tibbitts, LMFT, is the President of InnerChange and the Executive Director of New Haven. You can read more of his ideas at Tibbits' programs are members of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) and he hopes with this article to start a debate over the current policies and practices of NATSAP and what they should be. -Lon

The first question that begs an answer is this: "Is NATSAP worth fixing?" Yes, in spite all of its problems NATSAP is worth fixing. It's the only forum for parent-choice programs to get together. It has the potential to be the most impactful organization in the world at raising the standard of care for youth in treatment.

Let's take a look at the three largest problems and some potential solutions.

Member participation is low
After a meteoric rise in membership in the first eight years, there has been only a smattering of growth to speak of lately. Members notoriously do not participate. Committees are sparsely populated. After four years the research initiative is still moving tectonically with only 20% of programs participating. Important calls to action are met with lukewarm response.

"Best practice" standards are not enforced
I've been told time and again that NATSAP is "a trade organization; we do not police our members". Saying we stand up for something is not the same as actually standing up for it. A handful of programs that purport to be giving good treatment are not, and yet they are still a part of our organization.

On the national scene NATSAP is viewed as the problem, not the solution
Representative Miller (D-CA) set us up and used us on a national scale to represent the "bad apples" in the treatment industry so that he could prove his point and push legislation onto the states that have none. We have done very little to correct the pistol-whipping we received years ago. Sure, we've made trips to Washington, D.C. and some of us have met with our local Senators and Representatives. We even had a few dozen of our alumni write letters in our behalf. But we've organized ourselves poorly around any semblance of a major publicity campaign and have done very little to improve our public image. Thus, we are playing defense when we should be making forward progress on the field.

Proposed Solutions:

How can we increase member participation?

If we really want our members to participate, we should be marketing to them heavily. We hardly communicate. Infrequent emails, infrequent personal phone calls, infrequent new Journal editions and infrequent newsletters add up to infrequent member participation.

Require member activity. We need to change the culture that currently exists of not holding our members accountable. Establish volunteer hour logs. Require our members to volunteer a certain number of hours per program per year. It needn't take hours of manpower to track this.

Our alumni are our greatest asset and most loyal allies. We should be treating our alumni like royalty. Give them free admission to national and regional conferences. They are willing to volunteer their time to our causes for free! They've already paid our member programs' service fees. Why should we want to alienate them by asking them to pay us to volunteer in our behalf? Wouldn't we attract more alumni participation this way?

Give awards to the staff of the programs, not the program heads. I've received the Outstanding Service Award three years in a row. While I'm grateful to be recognized, it doesn't really inspire me to continue to serve because I already do. But think on this - how powerful it would be if we recognized a truly heroic residential employee in one of our member programs. If her organization flew her out to our conference and we all applauded her work, don't you think we'd get more mileage out of that? You can bet it would inspire a whole new level of energy in her program. Don't you also think this would increase the number of our Individual Affiliates?

We recognize leaders with a keynote speech and an award at our annual meetings. It's always someone who served on the Board or was past president or some such. Why not find a therapist or an alumnus who has served us and recognize them? I think it'd be better deserved. Why not choose a more nationally-renowned individual who has championed youth - like a Senator - and recognize them instead? We could be generating national press rather than patting ourselves on the back. If we were getting national press at our conferences I'm fairly confident our membership would respond with increased attendance.

We all know that our members come to our national conference to network and market. I am not opposed to this, although the primary reason for NATSAP's existence is for members to spend time with each other, furthering best practices. But because we are parent-choice, we need to sell our wares. We should establish some more formal ways of connecting members with referral partners. For example, NATSAP-sponsored sessions where Educational Consultants can meet with program leaders may be well-received. Why couldn't half a day of the NATSAP conference be similar to the wildly popular School Connections conferences? I'm sure members would pay for something like this.

How can we ensure that all of our members uphold NATSAP's values?

Folks in my organization were part of the creation of two of NATSAP's key Principles of Good Practice: Behavioral Support Management and the Best Practices in Academics. We spent loads of time and money on these, but for what? Just to have program heads sign a document stating their support of these principles once a year?

Over the years, the Board has debated back and forth about whether or not we should be policing our members. Why? Because they know that there are members who are not living up to NATSAP's agreed upon Principles of Good Practice.

I don't want to get into a debate about whether or not we ought to police our members (we ought). I simply want to break the stalemate and offer other creative ways we can bring NATSAP's core beliefs to the forefront of our members' minds.

We ought to require our members to DO SOMETHING with our Principles of Good Practice. We could require training and competency testing similar to the annual employee trainings we all use in our organizations. Watch an instructive video. Heck, make them create a video! Take a test. Fill out a questionnaire. Observe another program's implementation of the Principles once a year. Mentor a new member in revising their behavior management policies. There are myriad creative ways we could be utilizing our core beliefs about good treatment. Why is this not more of a priority?

How can NATSAP be more of a leader in national dialogue about parent-choice residential treatment?

Without member participation and emphasis on higher standards, we lose right out of the gate. If we'd fix the first two problems I listed, then we'd have a running start at fixing this one.

We should be partnering with the other major children and residential advocacy organizations. I was pleased with the Saturday panel NATSAP's Board put together at the national conference in Tucson. Inviting AACRC, CAFETY, and CWLA was a fantastic start. SAMHSA needs to be invited, as well as many others. I understand there will be another meeting of the major players in June, and I am hopeful that we will conduct ourselves wisely and politely. Who will be responsible to capitalize on the momentum that was created? Who will focus us and organize us?

National attention starts in our own hometowns. NATSAP's Public Relations Committee should be advising members heavily on how to fuel their own good press in their local papers. I can't remember the last time (or the first time) the Public Relations Committee reached out to me with an idea on how I could better communicate the good news about my agency.

The NATSAP website is antiquated and difficult to navigate. We need to update it, and it need not cost an arm and a leg. Lon Woodbury's site, for example, is not the most visually stunning thing in the world, but it is incredibly effective and enormously informative. Let's make our website more useful to those on the outside. It should be bristling with information about all the good things we do.

While we're updating our website, let's build it to support new social media exploits. Video is the new rage. A simple FlipHD camera can create cheap video and be uploaded quickly to YouTube. There should be a NATSAP YouTube account. We should be collecting video from all of our programs. Twitter is easy to use and many of our members are using it. It wouldn't be hard for the NATSAP Board to have a joint Twitter account they all post to. Facebook just surpassed Google as the most visited site on the web. 4 million people with teens use Facebook. Why doesn't NATSAP have an account? It's really not that hard to maintain. We're running behind the ball. We need to use every communication tool at our disposal.

Whether we like it or not, we need to do research on our clinical outcomes! As stated before, there are only 37 programs who participate in NATSAP's research initiative. John Santa was visionary in starting it, but no one has really carried the torch since he got it going. Who leads this? Why are we not posting our results on the website? Why are we not driving the Journal? We may need to look at whether or not those who manage our Journal and our research projects are the right people for the job. If we want play on the national stage, we have to give our nation a reason to take us seriously. If we don't take ourselves seriously enough to conduct and report research on what we do, then nobody else will either.

So, what are the limiting factors to implementing these solutions? Money and willpower. We live in fear that these things will cost too much. NATSAP will become an organization just for those who can afford it, or so the reasoning goes. Not so. As of yet, we are not pricing members out of our organization. And if we continue to add value, we make NATSAP something that members can't afford NOT to belong to! The grumbling about price we hear from time to time is not because we are too expensive, rather because we are not yet giving members their money's worth.

As an organization we need to stop fearing that membership will drop like flies if we challenge them to be better or require more of them. People rise to expectations. It's time to expect more. It's time to be what we say we are. It's time to fix what's broken.

InnerChange provides educational, treatment, and recovery programs for adolescent girls and young women experiencing emotional or behavioral difficulties. Our residential treatment and transitional living programs are clinically sophisticated and designed to facilitate whole-family healing. We are committed to restoring hope in the lives of those we serve. InnerChange programs include: New Haven, Sunrise and Fulshear Ranch Academy.

For more information, please contact Dustin Tibbitts at 801-380-4367 or by email at:


Dustin Tibbits, President of InnerChange and the Executive Director of New Haven, a longstanding member of NATSAP, recently posted a well-written, heartfelt, and conceptually accurate essay expressing his much-evident, deep feelings and care about his and our organization, our directions, goals, achievements, and challenges. In large measure, we agree with many of his assertions, including those describing membership involvements, best practice standards enforcement, and our proactive representation of our industry in terms of government relations.

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