A Neighborhood Effected

This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of SSA Magazine.

For two decades, SSA Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith has been studying and working in communities to combat youth violence, and she has seen a lot of programs fail. So it was with great pleasure that the director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (CCYVP) unveiled the early results of her latest study to the Centers for Disease Control last year: Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, which historically had homicide rates three times higher than the city average, had shown a drop in those rates by 50 percent from 2010 to 2013. Similar high-crime Chicago neighborhoods showed little to no decrease over the same period.

The difference is in three significant programs run through or with CCYVP, one of six National Academic Centers of Excellence funded by the Centers for Disease Control to research youth violence prevention programs. First, CCYVP partnered with CeaseFire, which practices direct intervention with gang violence, to help efforts in community outreach. In addition, the center staffed workers at Orr High School to work on reducing school drop-out rates and in transitioning students out of the juvenile justice system and back into school.

The other programs were targeted at Humboldt Park families with much younger children. “The big picture model is that we are implementing a coordinated and comprehensive set of programs that thinks about kids and families across developmental stages and different levels of risk,” Gorman-Smith explains. “That’s a big part of why we partner with CeaseFire. They target the highest risk kids at the older developmental stage.”

CCYVP created and runs the SAFE Children (Schools and Families Educating Children) and GREAT Families programs, interventions for at-risk first graders and at-risk sixth graders respectively. “We are particularly interested in engaging parents and families prior to the age where kids are at the point where they need CeaseFire,” Gorman-Smith says. “The goal is to someday put CeaseFire out of business—that’s their goal, too.”

SAFE Children and GREAT Families convene groups of four to six families who live near each other and whose children attend the same schools. They meet together with facilitators to address parenting and family issues in an inner-city context, such how to keep kids safe, healthy and, especially, in school. The focus is on improving parenting and family functioning. “Our data have shown that families living in these neighborhoods, even in close proximity, tend to be very isolated from each other in terms of social support,” Gorman-Smith says. “[We] bring people together to use each other and services in the neighborhood, to teach them lifelong help-seeking skills.”

Historically, many interventions in communities with high rates of crime and violence focused on individuals, but Gorman-Smith notes that research suggests that interventions targeting families and communities have higher positive impact. “The goal is population-level and neighborhood-level decreases in violence,” she says. “We are hoping that by intervening with the highest-risk kids and families that we can have an ecological impact on the neighborhood.”

The results show that the programs did have success in lowering rates of violence beyond the participating students themselves. Studying the sixth graders targeted for interventions, Gorman-Smith found a decrease both in the individual kids’ risk and a decrease in overall incidents of aggression and violence in area schools. Sixth grade is considered a key moment developmentally before youth get involved in serious violence. “By changing those kids’ behavior we had an impact on the behavior of the kids around them. That’s an ecological impact,” she says.

CCYVP programs partner with other community services. Part of why the center chose Humboldt Park, where 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line (Chicago citywide average is 18 percent), is because the neighborhood has active social services and community organizing resources. “We coordinate programs to avoid duplication and work with those agencies to focus efforts on programs that have a stronger evidence base,” Gorman-Smith says.

Gorman-Smith also notes that the Humboldt Park work stands on the shoulders of the evidence-based practices CCYVP has been studying and promoting for almost two decades. In that time, center staff have worked to get principals, teachers and community leaders to understand how randomized trials can identify effective interventions, and at the same time, make sure academic and government leaders pay attention to what these high-risk communities need. Her next target is Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, where another pilot CCYVP program has launched.

“In the future,” she says, “we hope that what we do can subsist in the community when we leave. And then we will establish programs in other communities to evaluate what works in different kinds of situations.”

— Patti Wolter