Keeping at-risk youth out of harm’s way

Keeping at-risk youth out of harm’s way

What makes some youth prone to violence and crime? A new research institute at Simon Fraser University aims to pinpoint the risk factors and develop ways to put kids on the right path
July 3, 2014

Imagine a boy growing up in a dangerous, underprivileged neighbourhood, a young mother who drank or used drugs while she was pregnant with him and didn’t have access to prenatal health care, a father who is aloof, absent or abusive. When the kid acts out during the “terrible twos,” his parents don’t know how to cope. So they try to control the boy through coercion, resorting to threats, intimidation or physical punishment. By the time school starts, the child finds it hard to make friends and struggles to learn. He ends up acting out even more — lying, breaking the rules, bullying and destroying things. If no one intervenes along the way, the boy is now at high risk for a life of violence or crime.

It’s a pattern that researchers like Robert McMahon want to break. As one of the world’s foremost clinical psychologists studying youth violence, he has spent three decades trying to help the children most at risk of committing violent acts. The circumstances that make some kids act out and others not are complex and intertwined — there’s no single path toward violence and crime — and research in this area is critical. McMahon wants to understand the factors that predispose certain kids to violence, everything from biological, environmental and community influences to early family life and peer development.

Part of the goal, of course, is prevention, a worthwhile effort even if looked at only from a cost-saving perspective. “Some data from the United States a few years ago,” says McMahon, “showed that when you look at the kids we’re most worried about — the so-called early starters who begin acting out and engaging in aggressive behaviours at a very early age — the cost of not diverting these kids from a life of crime ranges from over $3 million to $5.5 million for one child.”

Understanding such a multifaceted problem calls for a multidisciplinary approach. Now, as the director of Simon Fraser University's (SFU) Institute for the Reduction of Youth Violence, McMahon is well positioned to pull together a team of experts in such disparate fields as psychology, criminology, genetics and neuroscience, all with the aim of creating strategies to nip youth violence in the bud.

The institute has been years in the making, created through funding from the government of British Columbia’s Leading Edge Endowment Fund. It existed only on paper until recently, but after receiving a $250,000 infrastructure grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, SFU opened the 185-square-metre space on its Burnaby campus last summer. The grant allowed researchers to purchase high-tech equipment to facilitate long-distance collaborations and unique research projects, such as providing intervention training to practitioners in remote locations. The facility is also outfitted with computers capable of crunching massive datasets collected from thousands of study participants over several years, enabling researchers to do complex analyses far more efficiently.

Although some researchers will be physically based at the facility, the institute will also focus heavily on promoting collaborations between experts from across SFU departments, together with experts at other Canadian universities, provincial and federal agencies and universities and institutes around the world. That makes it one of a kind. Until now, Canadian researchers studying youth violence have not collaborated as much or as well as they could have, and a lot of the focus has been on the problem of bullying. “SFU’s institute has a much broader scope,” says McMahon. “I believe that this will be unique in Canada.”

The institute builds upon SFU’s existing strengths in youth violence, especially in the department of psychology and the School of Criminology. And McMahon himself, who moved from the University of Washington in Seattle to lead the institute, lends considerable clout. He’s involved in the groundbreaking Fast Track project, which has been monitoring hundreds of kids for 20 years. The goal was to study the effects of intervening with the highest-risk children and giving them the “Cadillac version” of everything researchers believed could help them, including teaching them how to make friends, academic tutoring, mentoring from a same-sex role model and teaching effective parenting strategies to their parents. “We asked, Would it make a difference?” says McMahon. “And, in fact, it does.” The kids who received the intervention were, for example, less likely to be arrested as juveniles. At the institute, McMahon has just submitted a funding proposal to extend his Fast Track research and hopes to take advantage of the high-powered computers to crunch the data he’s collected from the project.

In another institute project, associate professor of clinical and forensic psychology Jodi Viljoen is developing a tool kit for probation officers and other professionals who work with youth in the justice system. Right now, it’s standard practice to take a profile on teens in trouble with the law, but not much is done with that information. Viljoen’s objective is to identify each youth’s strengths and vulnerabilities, then use this insight to figure out how to help him or her. Whether adolescent offenders go on to become adult criminals or take another path often comes down to what kind of intervention they receive. Called the Adolescent Risk Reduction and Resilient Outcomes Work-Plan, or ARRoW, Viljoen’s tool kit provides resources to help the people who work with incarcerated young people avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach and develop a more customized treatment. After pilot testing this summer, ARRoW will be implemented throughout B.C. in the fall.

Meanwhile, post-doctoral fellow Dave Pasalich is establishing a program that will enable children to maintain a relationship with their incarcerated mothers. New video conferencing capabilities at the institute will help therapists connect with children and their caregivers who live in different regions of the province. “This is about building stronger families, which can help prevent youth conduct problems,” explains Pasalich. To carry out the project, he has partnered with JustKids, a community organization that runs programs for kids who have a parent in prison.

Pasalich began mentoring at-risk youth when he was a PhD student in Sydney, Australia, and the experience drew him into this research niche. He still makes time for mentoring on weekends and currently works with three brothers in foster care. Although he describes his role as “just hanging out,” it’s what drives his passion for his academic pursuits.

“Because I’m wearing a different hat — more like a big brother than a therapist or researcher — I’m able to get more involved in their personal lives. It puts my work into perspective,” says Pasalich. “It’s one thing to be doing research, collecting data and writing reports, but it’s another thing to be convinced that these services will make a positive effect on the lives of the most vulnerable. It keeps me optimistic.”