The Social Development Research Group in Seattle’s Northgate neighborhood is like a factory churning out solutions to social problems. The folks there are particularly keen on helping young people grow up free of problem behaviors.
This week they published the results of a study showing the effectiveness of the Communities That Care (CTC) system for preventing adolescent crime, violence, and alcohol and tobacco use.
I talked about the system with David Hawkins, the lead author of the study and co-founder of the group with Richard Catalano, a fellow University of Washington professor.
“I started out as a probation officer,” Hawkins said. “I’m working with delinquent kids and I’m thinking: Isn’t there something we should have done to prevent these kids from getting to this place in the first place?”
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Of course that makes sense, but getting it done isn’t so simple. Hawkins said he joined the UW faculty in 1976, and in 1980 a colleague completed a study of the delinquency-prevention experiments done to that point. And guess what? None of them was effective.
Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a flurry of activity by researchers testing programs and strategies to find those most effective at addressing particular issues, from preventing substance abuse to improving parental effectiveness. But the tools developed over those two decades and since haven’t always found their way into communities that need them.
This latest study was designed to test a strategy for getting the right program to the right children in the most effective way.
The system Hawkins and his team use is Communities That Care
, which he and Catalano developed. It was so promising that a private company acquired it, but profits weren’t as high as hoped.
The federal government bought the system in 2005 and made the materials free online, but Hawkins said training and technical support aren’t always available through the government, so the UW research group is again helping communities use the system.
CTC consists of five steps. Key stakeholders champion the effort and assess local readiness. They recruit a diverse coalition of local leaders. The leaders use data to pinpoint local needs. The coalition chooses options from a list of effective programs. The community implements them exactly as they were designed to be implemented and periodically evaluates the programs.
Twenty-four cities around the country participated in the study; 12 got help, 12 didn’t.
Researchers followed students from fifth grade through 12th grade. They found that at the end of eighth grade, young people in CTC communities were 33 percent less likely to smoke, 32 percent less likely to drink and 25 percent less likely to be delinquent than young people in the control group of cities. Subsequent surveys found the benefits continuing through high school.
Most cities that use CTC start much earlier than fifth grade for maximum benefit.
Hawkins said CTC follows the approach health-care providers take toward preventing heart disease. Diagnose the problem. Look at the behavior you want to prevent, asking what are the risk factors and what are the factors that protect against that behavior. Pick vetted programs that reduce risk factors (such as family conflict, availability of drugs or guns) and reinforce the protective factors (strong family support, commitment to school, etc.).
Healthy development is the best prevention.
The CTC system is being used by numerous cities, from Mercer Island to Malmo, Sweden. And a coalition is forming in Seattle to make use of CTC in some South Seattle neighborhoods.
Hawkins said his experience as a probation officer showed him the importance of early intervention and inspired him to do research that shows how to do it. When he and Catalano got together they were of like minds, he said, “We said let’s make a difference and do good science at the same time.”
They’re still at it.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org