Research of Note for September 2003

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The start of the school year is a good time to examine the disconnect between the school experiences and educational goals of teens in foster care. Other timely studies include teen efforts to quit smoking and research aiming to understand the little-studied phenomenon of girls who sexually abuse other children.

Kids Try to Quit Smoking

First Look Report 11: Youth Tobacco Cessation
American Legacy Foundation, July 2003
Available at

Of all the bad habits of today’s youth, smoking is one of the most deadly and long-lasting. More than 90 percent of U.S. adult smokers began smoking as children or teens; 11 percent of middle school students smoke, as do 28 percent of high school students. Despite these well-documented and depressing numbers, little is known about youth efforts to quit.

This report by the American Legacy Foundation attempts to provide some answers. It is based on data from the 2000 National Youth Tobacco Survey, an anonymous, self-administered questionnaire completed by a nationally representative sample of more than 33,000 middle and high school students ages 11 through 19.

In this study, current or former regular smokers were defined as youth who reported having smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetimes. Current regular smokers had smoked on at least one day in the previous 30 days. Former regular smokers were more stringently defined: They had been daily smokers for at least 30 days in the past, but hadn’t smoked in the 30 days prior to the survey.

The report found that more than half of the students had never smoked, and more than one-third were “experimenters” who had smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes. Students who had never smoked were more likely to be younger and Asian. Experimenters were more likely to be older and African American.

Among the findings:

• Eighty-two percent of regular smokers reported thinking about quitting in the past 12 months. Eighty-four percent of 17-year-olds thought about quitting, compared with 69 percent of 11- to 13-year-old smokers, a significant difference.

• Two-thirds of regular smokers had attempted to quit at least once in the previous 12 months. Among those who had been daily smokers and had tried to quit, only 8 percent were successful and had not smoked any cigarettes in the 30 days before completing the survey.

• Motivation to quit didn’t vary by gender. Asian Americans reported greater interest in quitting.

• Nearly two-thirds of regular smokers in each age group (middle and high school) had attempted to quit smoking at least once in the previous 12 months. In both middle and junior high, females were significantly more likely than males to report attempting to quit at least once in the past 12 months.

• Former and regular smokers had tried to quit an average of two times. Most efforts to quit lasted less than 30 days.

• Surprisingly, 85 percent of regular smokers and 94 percent of former smokers who attempted to quit smoking did not use any of the methods listed in the survey, which included school cessation programs, community programs, quit lines, nicotine gum or patch, and prescription medication. Nicotine gum or patch was the most common method, used by 10 percent of regular smokers and 3 percent of former smokers.

• One reason that quitting was so difficult may have been that youth spend a lot of time with smokers. Most of the youths (whether they smoked or not) reported having been in the same room with a smoker each day of the past week, and 45 percent had been in a car with a smoker every day of the past week.

• Forty-nine percent of former smokers and 63 percent of regular smokers reported that they lived with a smoker. Eighty-seven percent of regular smokers and 67 percent of former smokers had at least one close friend who smoked cigarettes.

This study suggests that most kids who smoke are trying to quit without professional help or medical products. The authors point out that school-based cessation programs tend to be better attended than other programs, although youth prefer that the programs be run by outside professionals rather than by a teacher. Because most kids don’t want their parents to know they smoke, they’re unlikely to use a cessation program that requires parental consent.

The report highlights another major obstacle to cutting down on youth smoking: the youths’ tendency to be around other smokers. So youth workers can help kids quit not only by helping them participate in cessation programs, but also by reducing their exposure to other smokers (including youth workers).

Girls Who Sexually Abuse Others

Adolescent Females Who Have Sexually Offended: Comparisons with Delinquent Adolescent Female Offenders and Adolescent Males Who Sexually Offend
Elizabeth K. Kubik, Jeffrey E. Hecker and Sue Righthand
Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2002, pgs. 63-83
Available free or Psychological Services Center, 717 Corbett Hall, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469-5717.

My first concern in reading this article is that it has more pages (20) than adolescent females who have sexually offended (11). Can we conclude anything based on such a small sample?

On the other hand, so little is known about adolescent girls who have sexually abused other children and adolescents that the article is worth reading and thinking about.

The 11 girls represented all the “open cases” in the Maine Department of Corrections during a one-year period. All the victims of female sexual offenders were younger or the same age as the offenders. At the same time, there were 174 adolescent girls who had victimized others, but not sexually. Of those, 11 were matched with the sexual abusers by age, for comparison purposes for the first of the two studies in the article. All the girls were white. The ages of the victims of the nonsexual offenses were not provided to the researchers.

The sexual offenses included fondling, oral sex, intercourse and penetration using fingers or objects. The girls averaged 16 years old during the year of the study, but averaged 11 years old at the time of their first offenses, compared with 14 years old for the other girls.

The sexual offenders were less likely to have problems with alcohol abuse, drug abuse, disruptive behaviors in school, truancy and fighting. Surprisingly, the two groups reported similar histories of having been abused and neglected. Almost half the sexual offenders had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while four had mood disorder and four had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Psychiatric diagnoses were not available for the nonsexual offenders, but they were equally likely to have had outpatient mental health treatment or intentionally cut themselves, and slightly more likely to have had previous in-patient mental health treatment or attempted suicide.

Sex offenders were less likely to have prior criminal histories. They were more likely to feel guilty and less likely to resist interventions by people trying to help them. (These differences were the only ones that were statistically significant; any other differences were more likely to have occurred by chance.)

Although it is difficult to have confidence in such a small study, the results are noteworthy because they are similar to previous research with larger samples that compared boys who sexually abused other youth with boys who committed nonsexual offenses.

In a second study in the same article, the researchers compared the same 11 sexual offenders with 11 adolescent males who had sexually harmed other children or adolescents that same year. The boys and girls had similar mental health, developmental and background traits and similar school experiences and anti-social behaviors. The girls were more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD (50 percent compared with 9 percent). They were also more likely to have been abused or neglected and had been abused by more perpetrators (an average of five compared with two for the boys). Those who were abused were more likely to be abused by a parent (83 percent compared with 10

percent) or other family member (83 percent compared with 20 percent).

The boys and girls had similar offense histories, with 36 percent harming both boys and girls, and 36 percent harming only the opposite sex.

It’s impossible to draw any conclusions from a small number of girls in Maine, but with female sexual crimes reportedly on the increase, it is important to learn more about why this is happening. These results show that girls who sexually harm others may be similar to their male counterparts, but even more likely to have been victimized by parents and relatives. This is more evidence for the importance of investing in case workers and services that can help these children and reduce the long-term costs of such abuse to the girls and to society.

Elusive Educational Goals for Teens in Foster Care

Educational Experiences and Aspirations of Older Youth in Foster Care
Curtis McMillen, Wendy Auslander, Diane Elze and colleagues
Child Welfare, Vol. 82, No. 4, July/Aug 2003, pgs. 475-495
Available free from Curtis McMillen at or Campus Box 1196, Washington University, St. Louis, MO 63131.

It is well known that older youth in foster care tend to do poorly in school. Most do not graduate from high school or attain a GED. This study indicates that despite these grim statistics, teens in foster care have surprisingly high educational aspirations.
Based on 262 Missouri youths from 15 to 19 who were referred for independent living classes in one suburban county, the study included one-hour in-person interviews prior to the classes. More than half (54 percent) lived in group homes or residential facilities, 3 percent lived in in-patient psychiatric facilities, and 23 percent lived with relatives. Half were male, 60 percent were black and 31 percent were white. The average age was 16.

In addition to educational experiences and goals, the study included placement histories, child maltreatment histories, behavioral problems, peer behavior, alcohol and drug use, and future orientation.

Four out of five of the students were in high school at the time of the interview, while 28 (11 percent) had dropped out. Even so, only one student did not plan to finish high school or obtain a GED, and only 14 (5 percent) planned to end their education at the high school level. Some 70 percent planned to attend college and 19 percent planned to continue their education after college graduation.

Their aspirations were in sharp contrast to their educational accomplishments: Fifty-eight percent reported failing at least one class in the past year, and most had been suspended at least once since seventh grade.

The most important predictors of lower aspirations were being male and younger and associating more with negative peers. Those with lower aspirations were also less future-oriented, less optimistic and more likely to have been in a psychiatric hospital or correctional facility. The youths’ educational plans were unrelated to maltreatment histories or recent school problems.
The researchers point out that the study probably had fewer of the highest functioning and lowest functioning students (because of the program selection criteria), and included no teens in family foster care.

The implications for youth workers are clear: Many teens in foster care are doing poorly in school and would probably benefit from help. The authors assume they need remedial education and tutoring, but it is impossible to determine from these findings the extent to which these children, especially those in congregate care, are struggling with low expectations and social isolation in school, as well as with academic limitations.

The fact that the teens have high educational goals suggests that many are motivated to do much better. But considering their academic performance, they seem unrealistic about their goals.

How can adults help these youths bring their achievement more in line with their goals? The authors recommend that “educational youth advocates” help arrange to get the youths into appropriate schools and to keep them in those schools even if the students move. These advocates would also work with school administrators to provide the support these teenagers need to succeed. That seems reasonable, but left unsaid is what that support should entail.