Research of Note for September 2006

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The annual National Institute of Justice (NIJ) conference in July convened researchers whose work is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Here’s a sampling of some of their latest findings in delinquency research:

Trauma Adaptive Recovery Group Education and Therapy (TARGET)
University of Connecticut Health Center  

TARGET is a strength-based, bio-psychosocial treatment strategy that teaches self-regulation skills to survivors of trauma and extreme stress. Administered individually and in groups, the program teaches youth and adults to process stressful experiences as they are happening by using seven steps represented by the acronym FREEDOM: Focus, Recognize triggers, Emotion self-check, Evaluate thoughts, Define personal needs/goals, Open new options and Make a contribution.

TARGET is the subject of three randomized control studies. Preliminary findings indicate that TARGET is associated with reduced disciplinary incidents and staff interventions for youth in residential facilities.

In a presentation about TARGET at the NIJ conference, University of Connecticut psychiatry professor Julian D. Ford said that verbal aggression coupled with domestic violence was found to be among the most damaging forms of trauma suffered by youth participants. Such abuse makes youth “highly reactive” and – while reactivity is a useful survival skill in dangerous situations – the propensity for inappropriate reactivity often gets youth into trouble, Ford said. Early data and anecdotal evidence shared by Ford suggest TARGET is successfully teaching youth to inhibit such impulses long enough to orient themselves and react appropriately.

An article on TARGET appeared in a recent edition of CorrectCare, the newsletter of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and is available at and clicking on “The TARGET Approach.”

Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency (CCD)
U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention  

This program is examining how youth become engaged in serious delinquency, violence and drug use within the context of family, school, peers and community. The program comprises three separate longitudinal projects that use a similar research design: repeated waves of face-to-face interviews with inner-city youth and their caretakers. The studies also collect data on the participants from public agencies, police, courts, schools and social services. Together, the studies make up the largest shared-measurement approach in the history of delinquency research, according to OJJDP.

* Denver Youth Study (DYS)

The Denver Youth Study is based on a random sample of Denver households in high-risk neighborhoods. The survey respondents include more than 1,500 youth who were ages 7 to 15 in 1987. Four- to five-hour interviews with the youth and one caretaker were conducted most years from 1988 to 1999.

The DYS is examining the influence of life events on the initiation, continuation and desistance of delinquency. According to principal investigator David Huizinga of the University of Colorado, while the study is showing that “the effects of life events on a youth’s development are highly personal” – in other words, subject to few generalizations – it has been able to measure the general effects of certain life events, such as family changes and dropping out of school.

Among some of the potentially controversial findings: Employment was not directly correlated to a decrease in serious delinquent behaviors; some serious offenders decreased their delinquent behaviors when they joined gangs; and having a baby decreased serious offending by 100 percent for female gang members and by about 80 percent for male gang members.

* Pittsburgh Youth Study

The PYS began with a random sample of public school boys who were in the first, fourth and seventh grades in 1987. An initial screening was used to select the top 30 percent of boys with the most disruptive behavior. That group and a random control group selected from the remaining 70 percent formed a study sample of just over 1,500 boys. Participants and a primary caregiver were interviewed every six months from 1987 to 1992. Participants who began as first- and seventh-graders are now being interviewed annually.

The PYS focuses on the question, “What causes non-offending?” In his NIJ presentation, principal investigator Rolf Loeber of the University of Pittsburgh described the effects of “promotive” factors (early conditions that increase the probability of prosocial behavior) and “protective” factors (intervening conditions that increase the probability of dissentience).

Promotive factors found to predict later non-violence and the absence of serious delinquency, Loeber said, include: low symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, high anxiety, no physical punishment at home, good supervision, involvement with family, and not living in a bad neighborhood.

* Rochester (N.Y.) Youth Development Study

The RYDS sample consists of 1,000 students (nearly three-quarters boys) who were in seventh or eighth grade in public schools during the spring semester of 1988. Males and students from high-risk neighborhoods were over-sampled. Participants and one of their parents were interviewed every six months from 1988 to 1992, and annually from 1994 to 1996.

The study is examining the long-term effects of parents’ age at the birth of their first child on that child’s subsequent delinquency, and the delinquency of later generations. At the NIJ conference, principal investigator Terence Thornberry of the University of Colorado said that early first birth (EFB) creates disorder in a young mother’s life, often resulting in dropping out of school, unstable marital status, an increase in poverty and isolation. Those factors influence parenting styles and family environments.

Thornberry said the study is finding that male children of EFB mothers show significantly increased levels of general and violent delinquency. He added that elevated levels of delinquency in the male offspring of EFB fathers were tied to the fathers’ propensity to take even younger females as mates.

Girls Study Group
Research Triangle Institute (RTI)

The group is an interdisciplinary collection of 15 U.S. scholars and practitioners convened in 2000 by OJJDP to help understand and respond to girls’ delinquency. The group’s activities include a literature review, analysis of existing secondary data (such as the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being), a review of federal programs, a review of screening and assessment tools, and the development of model programs.

In her NIJ presentation, Margaret Zahn, a senior research scientist at RTI, said findings to date include:

* Girls who are sexually assaulted and who experience early puberty are more likely to engage in physically aggressive acts.

* Being successful in school does not moderate the impact of sexual assault on subsequent physical aggression, truancy or theft. Neither does the presence of caring adults or religious involvement.

* Those variables did significantly reduce the likelihood of engaging in vandalism.

“The news media don’t have it right,” Zahn said. “The epidemic of violence among girls is false.”

According to Zahn, self-reported arrest patterns over the past two decades implicate recent changes in the enforcement of zero tolerance, domestic violence and status offender laws – rather than increasingly violent girls – as the reason behind rising arrest rates.