2. Conducting Community Assessments

The Community Prevention Grants Program is based on the premise that in order to prevent a problem from occurring, the risk factors that contribute to the development of that problem (e.g., family conflict, availability of firearms) and the protective factors that buffer the influence of the risk factors (e.g., positive relationships with a mentor) first must be identified (Hawkins & Catalano, 1992). Like the doctor who conducts tests to make a diagnosis before prescribing any medicine, PPBs are tasked with conducting a "diagnostic" assessment of their communities to identify underlying risk factors before implementing or expanding program services. This assessment involves the following steps:

  • Collecting empirical data on problem behaviors and indicators of risk.4

  • Assessing the areas where the risks are the most problematic (e.g., indicators are particularly high compared to State or National figures or have been increasing at alarming rates).

  • Inventorying existing community resources (e.g., school-based programs, mentoring activities, prevention coalitions) that address priority risks and also enhance protective factors.

  • Identifying resource strengths, gaps, and areas of duplication.

  • Setting priorities for addressing risk factors and enhancing protective factors.

Once the assessment has been conducted -- i.e., risk factors have been identified and prioritized and resource gaps clarified -- appropriate delinquency prevention strategies and programs can then be developed that address both those specific risk areas and also build resiliency against them. This assessment process not only guides the planning process and the development of a community-specific program plan, but it also provides baseline data against which long term progress can be monitored.

The Community Prevention Grants Program requires that communities conduct and include a thorough risk and resource assessment (RRA) in their subgrant applications. While communities frequently report that the benefits of the end-product -- a detailed profile of their community's strengths and weaknesses -- ultimately outweigh the costs, the risk assessment process is both labor- and resource-intensive and, for many, is difficult and frustrating. The following sections outline some of the assessment challenges that communities have reported, including finding and gaining access to appropriate data, finding time to collect the data, and selecting from among different prevention frameworks, along with several solutions that have been found to help overcome these challenges.

2.1 Finding and Gaining Access to Appropriate Data

Despite well-received training in the RRA process, in many cases PPB members struggle to transfer the assessment skills they learn in training to practice, especially the rigorous data collection component. Since board members are generally not researchers or evaluators but are, instead, educators, law enforcement officials, program administrators, social workers, and concerned citizens, they often find the tasks of accessing, organizing, and interpreting large bodies of data from multiple sources somewhat daunting.

Many communities have found it difficult to obtain appropriate data at the local level. In most States, data are collected and aggregated at the State and county levels, but infrequently at the community level and almost never at the neighborhood level. Conditions in a small town may vary greatly from its neighboring city, for example, and the data from both jurisdictions may be combined into aggregate county statistics. In addition, the entities responsible for reporting data -- schools, courts, child welfare agencies -- often do not do so in a consistent manner. Schools may report data by school district, courts by court district, and child welfare agencies by county, all of which are defined by different geographic boundaries. Further, the different entities may define similar events, behaviors, and outcomes differently (e.g., three school districts in one county may use three different definitions of "tardiness").

In response to these difficulties, States have been working to develop strategies to make data more easily accessible. The Pennsylvania Council on Crime and Delinquency, for example, has contracted with the National Center for Juvenile Justice to create an electronic juvenile justice data book for the State of Pennsylvania. When complete, communities conducting an RRA will be able to access a wide range of data regarding crime reports and arrests, school drop out rates, health information (e.g., pregnancy rates, deaths due to suicide, youths admitted to drug and alcohol treatment programs), child maltreatment and domestic violence reports, and population statistics. Similarly, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has developed a Data Resource Guide to provide data on children, youth, and families. The Guide is intended to encourage a comprehensive, community-wide needs assessment process by looking at the broader needs of the community, rather than any single component. Many States (e.g., North Carolina, Colorado, Washington, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) also support communities in data collection tasks via ongoing TA and training to local communities through local TA contractors or assignment of juvenile justice staff to this task. While communities are still responsible for conducting the RRA, the State's assistance helps "get them through the hard part."

Communities also report that building broad-based PPB membership that includes representatives of the agencies who maintain relevant data can facilitate access to more sources of community data. A board member in Hawaii reported that because their PPB included the local school principal, they were able to tap into recent school performance and disciplinary reports, about which other board members previously had been unaware. The data in the reports were informative to the community's RRA and helped redirect the community's prevention strategy. Additionally, communities find that the local United Way agency, extension services of State colleges and universities, and the Kids Count Project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation have been valuable sources of data for their assessments. Nevertheless, the availability, accessibility, accuracy, and consistency of local data all prove to be ongoing challenges that require considerable resourcefulness, persistence, and time on the part of committed communities to overcome.

2.2 Finding Time and Resources to Collect Data

Related to the challenge of actually finding the data necessary to conduct a thorough RRA is the matter of finding the time required to do it. As one local Title V participant remarked, "Community representatives have jobs, difficult jobs to which they need to attend. It's hard for them to take time away from their jobs to plan or even to go to training, let alone to spend months gathering data." The time factor becomes especially critical when communities are nearing application deadlines without having completed the data collection and analysis process. This can result in the submission of an incomplete assessment and plan or, if the deadline has passed, the submission of no application at all, requiring the community to wait until the next funding cycle.

Some communities have responded by organizing their PPBs into subgroups and dividing RRA tasks among the groups to help reduce the time demands on any one individual or group. Several States provide extra support for the data collection and RRA process. In recognition of the "up-front" time and commitment required for the Title V application process, States such as Michigan and Pennsylvania offer State-funded planning grants.5 Communities use the planning grant to hire local consultants who conduct data collection and analysis or facilitate PPB meetings and activities, which has helped offset some of the time and resource demands on PPB members. Many communities agree that the planning grants are a valuable resource for their mobilization and planning efforts.

Despite the time demands -- which are universally noted -- most communities that set out to do an assessment eventually are able to get the job done. The results of the process ultimately provide them with detailed profiles of their strengths and weaknesses and a concrete foundation for prioritizing community risk factors and focusing their delinquency prevention plans, a product most find to be worth the effort.

"It was difficult to start thinking about things in terms of risk and protective factors... If you can get through the assessment process, it works so well. It let us know what we needed in our community."

-- Title V Project Director, Missouri

2.3 Selecting from Among Different Prevention Frameworks

As described in Chapter I, the Community Prevention Grants Program is "based on a program design which addresses those risk factors which are known to be associated with delinquent behavior" (Federal Register, Vol. 59, No. 146, August 1, 1994) and, as discussed above, requires that communities undertake an often challenging and time-consuming risk assessment process. A core requirement of a community's Title V grant application is that it "must include a 3-year plan describing the extent of risk factors identified in the community and how these risk factors will be addressed."

To help communities understand the basic principles of risk- and protection-focused prevention, OJJDP selected Communities That Care (CTC) as the delinquency prevention model for training nationwide. While CTC is only one of several prevention frameworks in the field, it was chosen because of its strong empirical basis and systematic approach to community-based, collaborative assessment and planning. CTC provides a conceptual framework and systematic approach for conducting a risk assessment, incorporating the 19 risk factors that have been demonstrated as effective through longitudinal studies as predictors of adolescent problem behavior (see Appendix). The CTC framework also stresses the importance of enhancing protective factors by providing children and youth with skills, opportunities for involvement, and recognition to help ensure that they form bonds with pro-social adults and develop healthy beliefs and clear standards (protective factors).

Despite its conceptual appeal and sound research basis, as indicated above, many communities are finding the risk assessment process very difficult to undertake. Moreover, many communities have expressed concern that a risk-focused approach suggests an overly negative, deficit-based emphasis when, in fact, the field is shifting to a youth development approach that promotes building on developmental assets. Some perceive the risk assessment process emphasized in CTC training as contrary to a positive youth development philosophy.

Many communities across the Nation that have attended CTC training are also knowledgeable about other prevention frameworks, principal among them is the Search Institute Developmental Assets (Search) model. Search offers a school-based survey that identifies the assets of its youth and then provides a series of strategies the community can employ to build and expand on those assets. This approach has considerable appeal among the communities that have embraced it because it is viewed as faster, easier, and more positive in focus than the CTC risk assessment process. In communities where both models have been adopted, sometimes with different local proponents, there have been conflicts over appropriate assessment, planning, and programming strategies, with the strong research basis of CTC appealing to some and the relative ease and positive focus of the Search model or other asset-based models appealing to others.

Communities are discovering, however, that this is not necessarily an "either/or" choice. In fact, many realize that each framework can be used to accomplish different aspects of the community mobilization and planning processes. For example, the CTC framework can be used to help a community develop its environmental risk and protection profile, and to track that profile over time; the asset-based framework can be used to build broader community support for youth development. Over the past year, the two organizations involved with these specific prevention frameworks have begun to help communities understand the strengths of each framework and how they most appropriately can be applied to energize and support positive outcomes for their youth and communities.

4 Indicators are the quantifiable data that provide information about the degree to which a risk factor is a problem. For example: average daily school attendance is an indicator for the risk factor lack of commitment to school; child abuse rates are an indicator of family management problems; and student survey data provide indicators of favorable attitudes toward a problem behavior.

5 The Program Guideline states that "The planning phase for each local applicant will occur prior to the award of [Title V] funds."

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1998 Report to Congress: Title V Incentive Grants for Local Delinquency Prevention Programs OJJDP Report