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Professor: Community work key in preventing crime

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 11:56 p.m. MST

PROVO — In order to lower crime, unwanted teen pregnancies and illegal drug use, communities must work together with families and schools to provide better prevention programs for youths, Dr. J. David Hawkins said during the Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture at BYU on Thursday night.

Hawkins, who is a professor of social work at Northwestern University, shared some of his findings from research looking at understanding and preventing child and adolescent health and behavior problems.

Sharing his own hopes as a parent, Hawkins said, "(My wife) and I wanted our kids to be productive members of their communities who contributed to society and to the economy, who have strong families and friendships, who live lives free from substance abuse and crime. I think it is what all parents want for their children."

Hawkins research looks into programs and policies that prevent youth behavioral problems such as substance abuse and delinquency. His presentation focused on the progress that has been made in research in the last three decades towards understanding how communities can promote the healthy development of young people.

"To prevent a problem before it happens, the factors that predict the problem must be changed," he said. "You must identify and reduce risk factors and identify and increase protective factors. This means there is a change in lifestyle because of understanding the risk factors."

It is through promoting positive behaviors — rather than telling youth what not to do — that the biggest changes have occurred, Hawkins said.

"The advances in prediction have been the identification of risk factors that promote or predict adolescent behaviors, as well as the identification of protective factors that when present, buffer children from the development of problem behaviors — even in the face of risk," he said. "Some of the risk factors exist within communities or neighborhoods where children grow up."

Part of the solution is identifying the highest risk factors specific to families, schools and individuals in a community, and taking preventative measures before the negative behavior occurs.

"There are also risk factors that exist within families and their interactions, within school settings as well as within individuals," he said. "Although we began our work trying to identify risk factors for delinquency and substance abuse, as we continued our work we began to learn that those risk factors were also predicting school drop out, unwanted teen pregnancies, violent behavior and even the internalizing problems in some cases of depression and anxiety. So we now know targets of preventive education and we also know things that need to be strengthened if we want to enhance protective factors."

Studies show some methods — information only, testimonials from recovered addicts, scare tactics, to name a few — do not promote good behavior. It is through providing opportunities for active involvement, teaching children the skill they need for successful participation, positive reinforcement for good behaviors, and creating strong bonds that individuals are able to set clear standards for behavior and foster good results.

"The summary is that when parents get those five ideas … they can put kids on a more positive development path and produce better outcomes," he said.

email: mholman@desnews.com

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