Grant to Fund Criminology Study of At-Risk Youth
Longitudinal Survey Data to Help Expand Study of Mental Health Factors
Oct. 26, 2009
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has awarded a grant to a UT Dallas criminologist to study the root causes of youth violence and the roles families and communities play in the problem.
Dr. Denise Paquette Boots and her colleague will use the $38,000 grant to support a year-long, secondary data analysis project titled “Mental Health and Violent Offending in Chicago Youth: A Multi-level Approach.”
Boots, an assistant professor and associate chair in the Criminology Program of the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, and Dr. Jennifer Wareham, assistant professor of criminal justice at Wayne State University, will expand on their recent research into the role mental health plays in violent pathways that develop during childhood and adolescence.
The research team will use restricted data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, a large, community-based longitudinal survey of urban youth.
As part of this project, the team will move beyond the individual-level variables and further include family and neighborhood-level variables to determine the relative influence of each of these types of factors in the lives of young people as they move toward adulthood.
“We’re using a hierarchical linear model,” said Boots. “First, it controls for and incorporates in the statistical model individual-level causes and correlates like mental health.
“When you add familial variables like parental psychopathology, parental incarceration or positive parenting, and then neighborhood-level variables such as social capital, collective efficacy, social disorganization—you can better understand whether or not mental health still matters.”
Boots says the study will adopt more robust, informed and complex modeling techniques than her previous research has used.
Life-course criminology simultaneously considers multiple risk factors (e.g., early aggressive behavior, lack of parental supervision, poverty) and protective factors (e.g., self-control, parental monitoring, strong neighborhood attachment). The resulting model helps researchers determine the direction, temporal order and strength of these factors in predicting antisocial behavior.
Boots hopes to include different cohorts of children from elementary-school level on up through adolescence and follow them across data collections toward emerging adulthood see what factors most influence these youngsters as they move onto violence pathways.
Another unique feature of the study is the use of scales drawn from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in measuring psychopathology. Boots and Wareham are among the first criminologists to use these continuous measures of common childhood and adolescent mental health problems.
“Instead of using diagnoses which are strictly dichotomous—you reach a clinical level or you do not—we use DSM-oriented scales,” said Boots. “These measures allow us to make distinctions between normal, borderline and clinical levels of mental health problems. It gives us a broader picture of problem behaviors. The borderline kids may be at just as much risk of crime; but if we don’t look at them, if they’re grouped in with the normal kids—that can change the results. It gives us a different way of looking at the problems.”
The researchers hope their findings can inform and guide practitioners and communities as they design intervention and prevention programs to reach at-risk youths.
“That’s one of the major concerns for NIJ,” said Boots. “They want this information to get to a practitioner-based audience where it can be applied to improve public policy and build healthier families and communities. It is a tremendous opportunity to be able to do this kind of research.”