September 7, 2010

Street outreach workers important for violence prevention

A new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, based at the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, describes how using street outreach workers is an effective strategy for reaching and engaging youth with the goal of violence prevention and intervention.

Street outreach workers are typically members of the community who intervene to prevent conflict and retaliation and, in some programs, also connect individuals with needed services, such as housing and job training.

While cities across the United States are utilizing such workers as part of their violence prevention programs, including CeaseFire in Chicago and Safe Streets in Baltimore, this is the first peer-reviewed study on a program to be published. It is also the first evaluation of this type of program in a smaller community: The researchers studied the one run by the United Teen Equality Center, or UTEC, in Lowell, Mass., a city of 105,167 residents north of Boston. The results are published in the fall issue of Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education and Action.

Analysis of the data collected from interviews with UTEC managers, UTEC street workers and representatives from local community groups yielded five major factors that contribute to the UTEC street outreach workers program’s success: involvement of youth in hiring the street outreach workers, investment in quality training for the workers, providing workers with a comprehensive benefits package and with team retreats to prevent staff turnover and burnout, establishment of community partnerships and incorporation of peacemaking into outreach.

“These features should be considered both by communities with existing street outreach worker programs and by communities in the process of establishing one, as they have demonstrated importance for both program success and sustainability,” said lead author Shannon Frattaroli, an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Management.

The process of peacemaking—which typically involves engaging gang leaders in conflict mediation, convening peace circles, participating in a peace summit and organizing a peace council—is a unique feature of the Lowell program. The UTEC team has invested in peacemaking, it says, because it believes it has helped to reduce conflict among gangs that have participated in the process. Another integral aspect of the UTEC program is an emphasis on providing resources for creating viable alternatives to violence, such as education advancement, skills development and securing employment.

“As communities around the country continue to struggle with how to address youth violence, it’s important to recognize that young people need resources in addition to strategies that help them to negotiate conflict,” said co-author Keshia Pollack, also an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management. “Coupling support with essential services is a key to helping youth make healthy and safe transitions to adulthood.”

Additional authors of the study are Karen Jonsberg and Jennifer S. Mendel, both of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy; and Gregg Croteau and JuanCarlos Rivera, both of the United Teen Equality Center.

The research was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.