Track VI
Delinquency Prevention

by Terence P. Thornberry, Ph.D.

Recent longitudinal research has described several characteristics of delinquent careers that have implications for delinquency prevention programs. Two findings in particular support the idea that prevention programs should begin at an early age and should be comprehensive: (1) although serious delinquency reaches its apex during adolescence, the onset of delinquent and antisocial behavior occurs much earlier for most offenders, and (2) there is no single pathway to delinquency.

Delinquency Prevention Begins Before Birth

Delinquency prevention programs can begin as early as infancy -- some programs even include prenatal care. Effective home visitation programs during pregnancy can improve a mother's prenatal health care and diet and can reduce her smoking and drug use. After the baby is born, home visitation programs can improve parenting behaviors. These factors reduce the chances of the early onset of antisocial behavior in children. Information was presented in this workshop on a ground-breaking program, which has been studied longitudinally over 15 years, where nurses provide prenatal and early childhood home visits. The program has produced positive interim results. Program participants posted a 75-percent reduction in State-verified cases of child abuse and neglect, a 32-percent reduction in emergency room visits, an 80-percent increase in employment by unmarried women, and a 43-percent reduction in subsequent children for unmarried women, as compared with a control group.

Delinquency prevention programs focused on maternal behavior may also take place in correctional settings. For example, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York allows mothers to keep their children with them until age 1. The prenatal care, postnatal care, and parent training provided at the facility enhance the relationship between mother and child.

During early childhood, reduction of lead poisoning and treatment for lead exposure can reduce lead's effect on a child's development. Head Start programs also have shown effectiveness in reducing later youth involvement in antisocial and delinquent behavior.

Workshop participants also discussed the importance of family preservation and the new focus on fathers, especially teen fathers. Another topic of interest was the effect of witnessing violence in the early childhood years.

Breaking the Cycle of Abuse and Neglect

Child maltreatment -- that is, physical or sexual abuse or neglect -- has been identified as a risk factor for subsequent delinquency. Research shows that delinquency rates for children exposed to long-term, chronic parental neglect are particularly high. According to findings in the Rochester Youth Development Study, child maltreatment places these children at risk for a variety of adolescent problem behaviors such as drug use, school failure, and teen pregnancy out of wedlock.

These findings underline the importance of including child maltreatment as a target of early prevention programs. Yet, as one speaker noted, despite the high level of incidence of neglect, these cases have low priority.

Social support for parents and parent training strategies can help to prevent maltreatment. Providing social services to maltreated children may also decrease the risk of later delinquency. Studies have shown that maltreatment leads to a series of negative outcomes for children and youth, such as poor self-esteem, poor academic performance, teen pregnancy, and neurological disorders that affect learning and health. Workshop participants were told that until this country can deal with violence in the family, it will never be able to deal with it in the streets.

(Note: Readers interested in the issue of childhood maltreatment may want to read OJJDP's August 1997 Bulletin In the Wake of Childhood Maltreatment by B. Tatem Kelly, T.P. Thornberry, and C. Smith. Copies of the Bulletin can be obtained by calling the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse at 8006388736.)

The Role of Fathers in Child Development

Although many family-based prevention programs focus almost exclusively on the mother, it is increasingly evident that fathers play a significant role in fostering positive child development. A father's absence often is detrimental to a child's social development -- particularly in African-American communities where the rate of female-headed households is high and continues to increase.

Two presenters talked about a major shift in values and life style, especially among the urban poor. Feeling shut out of the overall growing economy, many young men in depressed areas of the cities have lost any sense of the future, and this feeling has a major impact on the role and self-esteem of fathers. One speaker suggested that integration has fractured the community, values, and culture of the African-American inner city poor and described welfare as "government-sponsored fatherhood abandonment."

Several programs have attempted to strengthen the involvement of fathers and enhance their parenting behaviors. The Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization, for example, works with young fathers in inner-city housing projects. This program stresses that responsible fatherhood must be instilled in homes, communities, governments, schools, and churches. Mentoring programs, such as Responsible Fathers and DAD (Dads Assisting Dads), match experienced fathers with new fathers to teach fathering skills and serve as counselors.

(Note: Readers interested in the role of fathers may want to read OJJDP's December 1997 Fact Sheet Responsible Fatherhood by E.M. Garry, which summarizes findings from Map and Track: State Initiatives to Encourage Responsible Fatherhood. Copies of the Fact Sheet can be obtained by calling the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse at 8006388736.)

Serving Youth With Multiple Needs

Children with multiple problem behaviors are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. For example, a child may exhibit antisocial behavior, substance abuse, and academic failure. Therefore, both risk and protective factors need to be dealt with simultaneously through comprehensive services.

The following approaches were highlighted in this workshop. Drug prevention programs, such as Project Star and the Seattle Social Development Project, provide skills development training for parents and children and family-centered and school-based initiatives. These programs target malleable risk factors such as parenting difficulties, family adversity, disturbed peer relations, and poor family social support, and attempt to improve protective factors such as positive classroom atmosphere and rewarding school experiences. These and similar programs, such as the Starting Early-Starting Smart Program and the Kaleidoscope Program, emphasize the importance of matching services to individual needs. Individualized services should be provided for each adolescent within his or her natural environment rather than force fitting the adolescent into the modular structure of programs.

Other areas to consider in recognizing and serving youth with multiple needs are fetal alcohol syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and victimization. The presenters emphasized that early identification and effective treatment of children with these and other needs would decrease the number of youth who come before the juvenile justice system. To accomplish this, better coordination is needed among government agencies at all levels. For example, one speaker pointed out the need for increased coordination among the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Department of Education, Indian Health Services, and Indian schools.

(Note: Readers interested in the issue of substance abuse treatment for juveniles may want to read OJJDP's December 1997 Bulletin Capacity Building for Juvenile Substance Abuse Treatment by T. Dickinson and A. Crowe. Copies of the Bulletin can be obtained by calling the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse at 8006388736.)

Innovative Community Prevention Partnerships

The focus of this workshop was on how to make community prevention partnerships a reality. Two presenters provided the audience with information on how to develop innovative community partnerships, and both shared their experience in building these relationships. Some of the most important lessons they learned are summarized below.

First, it takes hard work to establish these partnerships and even more work to sustain them. People need to come together for a common shared purpose, belief, or action. It is particularly important for the mobilizer of the group to be a strong leader and a visionary. These qualities will help the group get through difficult situations, such as "turf" issues and competition for scarce dollars. A leader with vision is able to keep the group focused on the big picture and on the group's long-term goals. This will help the group avoid getting bogged down with nonessential tasks.

In addition, building partnerships requires tremendous patience. Both presenters agreed that if group members value the essence of partnership, then -- in spite of occasional doubts -- the process will be well worth the effort required and can produce many benefits. The presenters noted that there will be times when individuals or programs involved in the partnership may have to make decisions that benefit the partnership but not their specific interests. Making decisions for the good of the partnership is crucial evidence of a commitment to the partnership. Obviously, such decisions can be difficult, but they are sometimes necessary in order to perpetuate the partnership.

Building a partnership can take what seems to be an unusually long time. However, this lengthy process can be essential to ensuring that all of the parties and pieces come together when the time is right. Partnerships cannot be forced, and the right timing is key to developing a viable partnership. Here again, a strong leader with vision can be invaluable in orchestrating the timing of the process that will lead to an effective partnership.

Communities in Action To Combat Illegal Drugs

Enlisting the support and assistance of the community in the effort to eradicate illegal drug use among juveniles is critical. This workshop highlighted the need for prevention programs to be integrated into the community's values and social institutions and also focused on how communities are combating open-air drug trafficking in targeted neighborhoods.

Baltimore's Comprehensive Communities Program focuses on organizing the community to combat open-air drug markets and drug-related crimes by coordinating the activities of law enforcement, legal and social services, and community groups. The speaker listed key elements for a successful community program:

  • Deny dealers the space to conduct their trade.

  • Maximize accountability and participation within the community.

  • Make crime unattractive and inconvenient.

  • Fill the crime void with positive alternatives.

  • Build community capacity for sustainability.

Another vehicle for organizing the community is the establishment of teen courts, such as the Youth Peer Court in Beaverton, OR. In teen courts, offenders -- typically first offenders with minor offenses, such as alcohol possession, shoplifting, or fights -- have already admitted their guilt. Adolescents from the community serve as court officers and jurors, passing judgment on their peers who have violated the law. Involvement in the teen court process is a positive experience for most teens. While playing their part, they see the judicial system in action and are exposed to a variety of possible career options, not just judges and lawyers, but also bailiffs, court officers, police officers, and parole officers.

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