Since its inception in 1999, the Greater Worcester Community Foundation’s Youth for Community Improvement project has engaged more than 180 teens in direct philanthropy. Together, these youth have made more than $285,000 in grants to over 70 nonprofit organizations in Worcester County, MA. How does YCI work? What are the benefits to the community and to the young people who participate? We caught up with six YCI team members on the University of Massachusetts/Amherst campus in June 2017 to talk about it.
Kenny Neal Shults has over 20 years of experience working with service organizations across the country to develop innovative strategies for engaging with vulnerable populations. He is particularly skilled at engaging young people in the creation of prevention-oriented digital messages. His organization, Connected Health Solutions, Inc., specializes in teaching agencies how to incorporate new media into their outreach and programming strategies.
Q. You’ve made lots of really compelling videos with health messages for teens – how do you develop the content?
A. First, the content should be generated by the youth, not their adult partners. “Partners” is the key term here. We work with the teens to create the brand, hashtags, taglines—all the components.
Youth are very savvy media consumers and marketed to more than any other social group. They are highly aware, and often skeptical of, content produced by adults. This means that our role as educators and service providers is no longer simply telling youth what we want them to know, but rather finding ways to produce compelling content that cuts through the bombardment of noise they see and click on every day.
Only teens have the kinds of insights agencies need in order to accurately influence behavior, so teens that produce content on your behalf must be given a great deal of latitude and trust.
Q. How do you work with youth to make videos? What’s the process?
A. The video is not the most important result; it simply provides something for participants to execute together. In doing so, they work as a group to explore whatever issue they have chosen to address, and identify solutions, obstacles, and methods for motivating viewers to change behaviors. In turn, the youth establish appropriate norms that they then internalize and incorporate into their own lives and behaviors.
It’s important to create a physically and emotionally safe space where teens get to experience belonging and ownership through group agreements that they make and enforce themselves. Some youth feel less vulnerable through activities that encourage sharing about a character or “other teens,” rather than themselves. One of the best collaboration tools for creating and crafting the content is a closed, unsearchable Facebook group that includes all the content creators (the youth and the adults) who can all produce, comment on and approve the content for the videos.
Q. What are some of the key lessons teens learn in the process of developing content?
A. When you ask teens to develop content for their peers, the tendency is for them to regurgitate the same finger-wagging messaging that has been targeted at them for so long. Part of what you need to do with teens is teach them how to effectively reach their peers by generating messaging that is appealing and not alienating. It’s very important that teens understand how to address their audience—they have to know what their audience is dealing with, what they believe, what they value.
The video content also has to adequately reflect the problem that they are trying to tackle. Teen pregnancy, going to college; what’s the problem they are trying to address? And what’s the solution? Content must supply a potential answer like, use a condom or go to a family planning clinic.
Emotions are essential, so you have to hook your audience as quickly as possible; emotion is what people remember. When you understand these core principals of social marketing, you can produce content that will make people want to change their behaviors.
Q. How can agencies make videos and PSAs on their own?
A. Agencies don’t need to produce slick, professional ads to utilize social media to generate awareness of and access to their services. Digital media can easily be produced on phones and tablets. There are many fun and easy mobile tools that can be used to make dynamic, eye-catching media, like Videoshop, GIF Maker, Nutshell, and Stop Motion. The quality is less important than the relevance and resonance it must have in order to effectively reach the intended audience.
This doesn’t mean that youth should be left to struggle with all of the shooting and editing, but they can develop the concepts themselves, write scripts, and conduct pre-production activities like casting and location scouting.
Q. How do you disseminate the videos you work on and get teens to watch them?
A. Video is the new universal language. Most teens access content on their phones, so you have to create media that reaches teens [where they are] and encourage them to distribute the videos through their online social networks.
We’ve made a number of 5- to 7-minute videos, but because they are considered long, it can be challenging to get teens to watch the whole thing. So, making short, Instagram-length content taken from lengthier social media campaigns to entice teens to watch a full video is a great way to start a social media strategy and engage teens.
Q. Let’s say I work for an organization that wants to recruit local youth to work on a video project. How do we do that? How do we keep youth engaged once we’ve got them?
A. An agency can find youth through peer outreach workers, agency-sponsored theater groups, educators, drop-in centers, etc. Agencies can offer incentives and meals: small prizes and food go a long way to get teens in the room. Offering the chance to win a “grand prize” to participants who perform well is a tremendous motivator. A tablet or pair of trendy headphones is a relatively small one-time cost an agency can offer in order to recruit and keep youth in the process.
Youth are drawn to and participate in media development projects for a large variety of reasons. Some youth just want to learn media skills, others need community service hours, others want to include the activities on their college transcripts, and some merely want connection with their peers. Lots of teens are aspiring actors and filmmakers and are fascinated by the process and their prospects for getting into the media industry. When youth are rewarded for their successes and given abundant positive reinforcement, they want to keep coming to the meetings and activities.
Q. Can you talk about a few of the challenges agencies can face in doing this work?
A. Understandably, many agencies experience trepidation when it comes to producing materials that represent their agency and its mission. Controversial or provocative social marketing content can result in backlash from the community and even funders. Finding a balance between what teens want to create and produce and what an agency feels comfortable with can be challenging. However, when the ideas of teens are valued these negotiations teach them a great deal about how to compromise, the realities of collective creative ventures, the opposition many agencies face in their communities, and level-playing-field interactions with adults.
See some of the video campaigns that Connected Health Solutions, Inc. have created with and for young people.
This resource was made possible by Grant Number 1 TPSAH160004-01-00 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health. The views expressed do not reflect the official policies of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. Any statements expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It’s not hard to create environments that actually spur young people’s emotional growth. In some ways, it’s simple and intuitive. But you do need to learn the basics.
That’s why Cindy Carraway-Wilson, Youth Catalytics’ Director of Training, is adding a new topic to her roster of trainings. Designed for faculty, staff and volunteers in schools, charter schools, afterschool programs, and residential and group homes, Mindful Classrooms, Developing Minds introduces participants to the ways that using mindfulness activities can benefit children, teens and young adults (as well as adult professionals) in any learning environment.
The body of research demonstrating links between mindfulness activities and social-emotional wellness, well-being and self-efficacy in both children and adults has been developing for over a decade. More recent research into the use of mindfulness in schools also suggests it can improve students’ academic performance. We at Youth Catalytics first began researching spirituality in youth programming 15 years ago by examining the kinds of spiritual practices that youth-serving organizations already offered to youth and whether they found them beneficial. Two follow-up reports explored how vulnerable young people themselves reported experiencing spiritual pursuits (both secular and religious), and how and why some agencies considered spiritually based practices to be an important component to any holistic therapeutic approach.
Our work sparked a partnership with Talk About Wellness (TAW), a Vermont-based initiative operating from 2004-2016 that brought mindfulness training to teachers throughout the state and other parts of New England. Conducting two evaluations of TAW’s impact on participants and writing their wrap-up report further convinced us of the promise mindfulness holds in promoting young people’s healthy development.
Cindy has 20 years of experience in the youth services field and is an expert trainer in positive youth development, youth engagement, asset building, LGBTQ+ issues and resilience. She’s been at the forefront of bringing the phenomenal new Youth Thrive model to audiences around the country. (She’s also a licensed Pilates instructor and trainer in her home state of Maine … just sayin’). With the release of TAW’s final report, Cindy was inspired to weave adolescent brain development, elements of Youth Thrive, and mindfulness research into a practical training for adults working with young people.
If that’s you … then this is a transformative learning experience you need.
Cindy Carraway-Wilson can be reached at (207) 319-6009 or email@example.com.
~ Jen Smith, Research & Communications Associate
About a year ago, a small national organization called Open Table found its way to our door. They’d been referred by a mutual friend at SAMHSA, a higher-up there we knew from his days as director of mental health services in Connecticut.
He knew we were interested in how faith communities could be harnessed on behalf of vulnerable young people; we’d done three large studies on the topic (within the broader context of spiritual-based programs in youth services). He also knew that Open Table was potentially powerful — so powerful that SAMHSA itself had decided to fund demonstration projects in its Systems of Care communities around the country.
We, of course, are primarily interested in young people. What intrigued us was that, at first blush, Open Table seemed capable of doing the one thing that the traditional social service system had never been able to do: stick with youth over time, not as paid professionals but as actual friends.
At first blush, Open Table seemed capable of doing the one thing that the traditional social service system had never been able to do: stick with youth over time, not as paid professionals but as actual friends.
The idea isn’t terribly complicated. Open Table partners with an interested congregation that commits to hosting one or more year-long “Tables.” Congregations buy a program license, and six to eight volunteers per Table are trained in how to support a person transitioning from poverty. The congregation partners with a local social service agency, and from that agency gets referrals to clients who both want and are deemed ready to receive help. Open Table recipients (in faith-community fashion, they are referred to as “Brother” or “Sister”) are diverse: in the seven years since Open Table began, recipients have been homeless LGBTQ youth, ex-offenders re-entering the community, single mothers in recovery from substance addiction, and young people aging out of foster care. They may have mental health issues, or addictions, or felonies behind them; no matter their circumstances, all of them are looking for a way to move forward.
In congregational settings, private homes and restaurants, Table volunteers begin meeting with their Brother or Sister once a week, where they work through a structured series of steps based on the recipient’s personal goals. Each Table’s progress is closely monitored and supported by the program itself, which employs mental health consultants. Tables are not about treatment, though, or even social work — and that distinction is important. It is skilled group mentoring that emphasizes friendship above all.
In the language of our field, Open Table provides “aftercare,” and organic aftercare at that, based on real relationships with people who are personally invested in caring. The assumption is that Table volunteers bring two essential things to the process: 1) their “human capital,” or the connections and know-how to navigate ordinary life, and 2) their willingness to non-judgmentally walk alongside a person experiencing profound yet surmountable problems. Evaluations to date show that for the recipients, the Table process is a bridge to education, better jobs, and long-term relationships. For volunteers, the process provides eye-opening exposure to the realities of poverty.
(For those wondering, as we did, about the religious content: Open Table doesn’t allow proselytizing and isn’t about winning converts. In fact, it doesn’t allow any religious language whatsoever unless requested by the person being helped.)
We were so interested in the potential of Open Table that we became evaluators to it, joining a group of consultants that includes John VanDenBerg, the wraparound services pioneer. For our part, we’re going to keep talking about Open Table and looking hard at how much of the ‘missing piece’ it can be for young people trying to find their footing. We encourage youth service providers to take a look as well.
By Melanie Wilson
Youth Catalytics Director of Research
How does Open Table look in practice? Watch Jessica, a former foster youth who became homeless after aging out of the system in Texas, explain it.
We’re excited to share a resource for teen pregnancy prevention programs that we developed for Wyman, based on our and others’ experiences implementing the Teen Outreach Program® with young people in foster care and juvenile justice settings (or who have other characteristics that make them special). Biggest takeaway? Working with young people in special situations requires a whole new set of tools and approaches, some adapted to the young people themelves and some to the larger systems that serve them.
We loved all the inteviews, connections and new learning, and look forward to helping other agencies learn from our and our colleagues’ experiences!
Back in the day — that being roughly 12 years ago — mindfulness was still slightly woo-woo. Nobody knew much about what it was or did, if in fact it did anything. It was creeping into youth programs under many different guises, including yoga, guided visualization and even martial arts. Program-based prayer and other kinds of religious expression (remember, this was way back in the Bush administration, when faith-based programming was on the move) wore a costume of a different sort. But even there, mindfulness and “letting go” was what lay underneath.
Now, of course, mindfulness is better (if not thoroughly) understood. It’s gone mainstream. Evidence is this new piece from the Harvard Business Review, surely the ultimate indication of legitimacy.
In our current era of expanded understanding of adolescent neuroscience, it’s worth appreciating how far we’ve come. It’s also instructive to look back on these still-illuminating studies that we, under our old name of New England Network for Child, Youth & Family Services, conducted of mindfulness practices in youth-serving agencies. (One measure of the long cultural path we’ve travelled? In the early 2000s, these practices were still known as “spiritual.”)
This work was groundbreaking at the time, and is still notable for its rigor and scope, and for the description of dozens of youth programs utilizing mindfulness practices with vulnerable young people. Indeed, to our knowledge, these studies are still the only ones of their kind. Take a look. We promise you’ll find something of use for your program.
Practice Unbound: A Study of Secular Spiritual and Religious Activities in Work with Adolescents. (2002). This report provides one of the first comprehensive looks at how agencies working with troubled adolescents utilized mindfulness activities. Of a random sample of nearly 200 youth-serving agencies, reaching from the U.S. eastern seaboard to Alaska, Hawaii and Guam, 60% report using at least one secular activity — guided visualization and 12-step groups are the most common — and 35% offer at least one religious activity. Both secular and faith-based organizations that already offer spiritual activities strongly support them and intend to do more, but say they need more training.
A Part of You So Deep: What Vulnerable Adolescents Have to Say About Spirituality. (2004) A Part of You So Deep focuses on teens themselves, using extensive focus group interviews, personal interviews and surveys to uncover their experiences of spirituality and their attitudes toward a variety of spiritual activities, both secular and religious. The findings, full of passion, confusion, disappointment, and yearning, illuminate the complicated inner world of our society’s most vulnerable teenagers, and offer crucial insight to counselors, teachers and anyone else committed to nurturing the spiritual lives of young people.
Adolescent Heart & Soul: Achieving Spiritual Competence in Youth-Serving Agencies. (2005). This first-ever study of spiritual programming in youth-service agencies describes how spirituality programs — both secular and religious — look in agencies that do them well. These ‘spiritually competent’ agencies recognize spirituality as an important component of a holistic therapeutic approach, and deliver their spiritual programs in conformance with widely accepted standards of clinical care and the principles of youth development.
In July, I went to Honolulu to lead a Youth Thrive training for 14 youth-service providers under the auspices of the Hawaii Youth Services Network. The providers were an amazingly diverse group. They worked with young people between the ages of 7 and 24 in middle and high schools; in reproductive health programs; and in programs for runaway and homeless youth. Among the group was someone from every Hawaiian island and three from Saipan, the largest island of the Northern Marianas.
If you’ve ever brushed up against the US Census, you know that these folks are collectively known as “Pacific Islanders.” So they’re one race, ethnicity, and culture, right? Wrong. Well, they’re essentially the same, right? Wrong.
What this training really drove home for me was how many subcultures exist within our large demographic constructs. And that’s just what demographic umbrellas are: a construct, something we make up for our own convenience. (Anybody want to weigh in on what “the white community” thinks about Donald Trump? Or what “the American community” thinks about the current refugee crisis in Eastern Europe? If you’re white or American, you know those very questions are nonsensical.) Which is why, in Hawaii, without doubt the most ethnically diverse of all American states, social service providers talk about the importance of being “culturally humble.”
Making genuine connections with young people is the basis for doing any successful work with them — as a teacher in a school, as a nurse in a health clinic, as a youthworker on the street. And no genuine connection can happen if you assume, consciously or otherwise, that your culture makes more sense than theirs.
In Youth Thrive, we combine the most recent findings of adolescent neuroscience with four decades of accrued knowledge about approaches that work — really work — to help young people realize their full potential. Youth Thrive teaches us that it’s not about changing them; it’s about changing ourselves so that we can truly, finally “meet them where they’re at.”
Cultural humility is part of that, a change we impose on ourselves so that we can see the young people in our lives without judgment.
At the end of the three days, Claudia ‘Lala’ Fernandez (who is Director of Programs Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii-Leeward), helped us close by arranging us in a circle. Circles, she explained to me later, symbolize the equal respect we shared and the bonds we had created during three days of work. She asked each of us to share the makana (gift) that we would take back home with us, and to offer our ko’okupu–our intention to nurture the gift back home, so it takes root and grows.
Finally, she thanked each one of us in Hawaiian, ending with this benediction: ‘Olelo no’eau, a’ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka halau ho’okahi,’ which means that not all knowledge is taught in one school or place. Another reminder of what we gain when we are humble and assume others may know something we don’t.
~ Cindy Carraway-Wilson, Youth Catalytics Director of Training
In January and February 2015, Youth Catalytics surveyed students in nine high schools in Connecticut, employing an innovative peer-report process designed to provide a reliable estimate of the number of teenagers in any given school district who have left home and are living somewhere else — a car, a friend’s house, a group home — temporarily.
The process was part of the state’s first-ever Homeless Youth Count and of Opening Doors-CT, a broad initiative that aims to design a comprehensive, integrated service system for homeless and unstably housed youth and young adults across the state. Direct counts of homeless young people are notoriously difficult to conduct, and no method effectively captures the large numbers of young people who aren’t literally on the street but still have no real place to call home. This approach questions youth directly about the living circumstances of their peers to arrive at a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the spectrum of youth homelessness.
In Connecticut, 5,439 students in 9 high schools completed the survey, which was administered to all students grades 9-12 in school on the survey day. A total of 930 unduplicated adolescents ages 19 and under were reported to be homeless or unstably housed. Put another way, for every 100 students completing the survey, 17 different young people were reported to be living somewhere besides home.
For every 100 students completing a survey, 17 different young people were reported to be living somewhere besides home.
Of young people reported as unstably housed, 25% were living with a friend; 15% with a girlfriend or boyfriend; 11% in a shelter or other transitional social service program; 6% in multiple settings; and 5% on the street or in a car. Thirty-three percent were reported to be living with a relative. Twenty-six percent of reported youth had been in their most recent living situation for 2-5 months; 16% for 6-12 months; and 12% for less than a month.
What’s the significance? It’s simple: communities only act on issues that are obvious and visible. Unstably housed youth aren’t either of these things. The only way we can prove they’re there — and thus drum up the support necessary to intervene early and help them stay in school and on track — is by capturing estimates of numbers of young people all along the spectrum. Will there come a time when we stop trying to count, and start reaching out and offering help — and not just to those youth with absolutely no where to turn but to those on the way?
That’s our hope. That’s why we do this work.
(See the plan that resulted from the overall project, ‘Opening Doors for Youth: An Action Plan to Provide All Connecticut Youth and Young Adults with Safe, Stable Homes and Opportunities,’ here.)
~ Youth Catalytics Research Director Melanie Wilson
If you teach social service and law enforcement personnel how to develop more productive relationships with youth, will the outcomes for youth improve? As a side benefit, will the professionals feel they’re being more effective, and thus be more satisfied on the job? We’ll be finding out in Vermont, where we’ve been hired to conduct three-day intensive cross-sector trainings in Youth Thrive™ in two communities and smaller half-day overview trainings in four more. The goal is to train professionals of all types who interact with young people involved with, or at risk of involvement with, the juvenile justice system. The project, funded by the Vt. Children and Family Council for Prevention Programs and the state Dept. of Children and Families under a grant from OJJDP, is focusing on the communities with the highest rates of school suspensions, school dropouts, youth on probation and youth in detention.
Youth Thrive is a brain science-based youth development training that teach adults how to engage with youth differently — in ways that not only won’t backfire (too often the case now), but that will actually produce better outcomes over both the short and long term. In the two high-focus areas, we will provide the full 18-hour training to professionals across disciplines, including those working in mainstream and alternative schools, law enforcement, and state and private nonprofit social services.
Outside of New Jersey and Florida, Vermont is the first state to use Youth Thrive to build capacity and knowledge in city, county and state systems. The rollout of Youth Thrive there gives us the chance to evaluate both the knowledge that participants gain and — more importantly — the changes they take back to their workplaces. We’ll be following up with the participants after six months to see what they’re doing differently and what impact those changes are ultimately making in their system and personal practice. We’ll also, of course, be tracking selected youth outcomes to see what changed for young people, and at which levels of the system.
Looking for the new frontier of youth development? It’s here. Give us a call and we’ll let you know how we can bring this indispensable training to your community.
The Vermont work is funded in part by OJJDP grant No. 2013-MU-FX-0555.
In 2014, Youth Catalytics facilitated a ten-month planning process in Connecticut aimed at designing a comprehensive service system for homeless and unstably housed youth. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has prioritized youth homelessness in recent years, and states are beginning to tackle the question of how they can ensure that all young people have safe and stable housing. The work we did was contracted by the Center for Children’s Advocacy and Partnership for Strong Communities with funding from Melville Charitable Trust, and included a series of meetings with three work groups—ones focused on housing, data integration, and services and supports for young people. The result of this work was a formal plan that will act as a road map for CT’s Opening Doors initiative.
While all state Continuums of Care have been tasked with intentionally addressing youth homelessness, some states are further along than others. Having recently released the new Opening Doors for Youth Plan places Connecticut at the forefront of a select group of states that are prioritizing this work and actively building capacity to serve youth and young adults in a coordinated way.
Connecticut’s document was informed by work group discussions, input from youth consultants, and our own research into other efforts to end youth homelessness around the country. One recommendation that came out of this research, for example, was the creation of a statewide coordinator position. Having a dedicated person whose job it is to oversee the implementation of system changes and ensure that available services are low-barrier and developmentally appropriate for youth is key to making sure Connecticut reaches its goals. Other states would do well to follow their lead in prioritizing funding that supports not just direct services to youth but also the administrative capacity to coordinate efforts across regions and advocate for legislative or system changes.
As an early-phase document, the plan also emphasizes the need for better data on homeless youth and strategies for evaluating the impact of changes on young people. In fact, one of the first steps taken by the data work group was to organize Connecticut’s first-ever rigorous homeless youth count, which took place in early 2015. This statewide count process included a unique element—a school survey that uses peer reports to estimate the number of unstably housed youth in any given district. The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness contracted with Youth Catalytics to coordinate this survey, based on our success piloting the instrument in other New England states. In Connecticut, we surveyed students in 11 schools; while findings from Connecticut have not yet been released, early analysis suggests they’ll be in line with results from earlier projects. Stay tuned for more.
~ Jen Smith, Research Associate
Over the last 30 years, we’ve conducted hundreds of trainings for professionals who work with young people. We’ve seen every trend come and go at least twice, and we’re pretty good at predicting how the field will respond to each one. In short, not much can surprise us. But something just has. Meet Youth Thrive™, the one training that has us so busy that it’s been hard to keep up. Why? Because Youth Thrive is PYD 2.0, the new, improved version that includes the latest information on adolescent neuroscience, trauma and resilience, plus practical help in applying what you learn to your particular setting. Simply put, it’s the new frontier of youth development. Want to know more? We think you need to know more. Below is one of our upcoming trainings in Maine. Join us, and find out what all the buzz is about.
Lighting the Bumpy Path to Adulthood: A Youth Thrive™ Overview
2015 Positive Youth Development Institute
& Summer Training Academy
University of New England
Research conducted by The Center for Social Policy Study has identified a set of key competencies that have been shown to help young people increase protective and promotive factors while reducing risk factors. Research shows that these supports help young people move beyond trauma and under resourced environments to become more resilient in addressing their developmental needs.
This workshop will present the key components of the Youth Thrive™ Framework including adolescent brain development and the impact of trauma on young peoples’ brain development, youth resilience, the importance of social connections, helping young people better understand their own development, concrete supports in times of need, and cognitive & social-emotional competence in youth.
- Become familiar with a set of guiding premises that support key practices with an application of the Youth Thrive™ Framework
- Explore the Youth Thrive™ Protective and Promotive Framework and key research behind each of its five components
- Learn how these promotive and protective factors, important for all youth, work together to increase the likelihood that youth develop characteristics associated with healthy adolescent development and well-being
- Consider important connections or overlaps with other important frameworks such as the Search Institutes 40 Developmental Assets
Cindy Carraway-Wilson, MA, CYC-P
Director of Training, Youth Catalytics
Hector Sapien, LCSW, CYC-P
If you think the rate at which boys experience sexual violence is relatively low, think again. Current research suggests that an estimated 25 million males in the United States experience child sexual abuse, which translates to about 1 in 4.5 boys. (Lower lifetime rates of 1 in 6 males are based on reports of rape only, and leave out other kinds of sexual violence that are no less traumatic to survivors.)
Despite the fact that males experience child sexual abuse at rates closely following that of females, cultural messages about what it means to be a man – ‘strong and silent’ – and the continuing stigma associated with homosexuality present real barriers to male survivors coming forward. It’s not uncommon for boys experiencing abuse by older males to worry that the experience ‘makes them gay,’ and that they’ll be targeted again if anyone finds out. In cases where boys are victimized by older women – just over a quarter of perpetrators are female – popular sentiment still leans toward hinting that male survivors ‘enjoyed it,’ and that boys can’t really be raped.
These stats and the tips that follow are from a recent webinar hosted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the National District Attorneys Association. ‘Giving Voice to the Last Silent Victims’ was led by Roger Canaff, a Fellow with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, and focused on unique issues and needs of male survivors. It’s not the fact that boys are vulnerable to child sexual abuse that should grab your attention here. Instead, be concerned that misinformation is keeping survivors from coming forward—keeping boys from getting the help they need and keeping professionals in the dark about how to stop abuse.
Perhaps the most frightening message that male survivors hear is that having experienced child sexual abuse makes them more likely to become an abuser themselves. Not true.
Men (and women) who were sexually abused are not more likely to abuse others. While child sexual abuse survivors do often act out, it’s much more common for them to hurt themselves than others, and many survivors actually heal well and go on to live healthy lives. It’s important for people working with youth to actively dispel the myth that survivors are destined to become abusers, and to remind young people they can overcome trauma, find intimacy and have families.
How do offenders find a way in? For one thing, they’re most often invited. The vast majority of sexual offenders work within some kind of institution that allows them to have access to children, an excuse for spending time with them, and protection if accusations arise. And don’t get hung up thinking that institutions have to be formal to play a role in child sexual abuse. Presenters described informal institutions – more like cultural norms – that can be a shield, too. For example, boys spending time in someone’s ‘man cave,’ or going on hunting and camping trips.
With males, as with females, grooming often begins with game-playing. In the case of males, perpetrators will often use the guise of teaching boys how to be sexual with girls – ‘so you know what to do when the time comes’ – and explain their advances as a normal or necessary part of growing up. Perpetrators may also target boys who are experiencing gender and/or sexual identity confusion. By the time sexual activity actually initiates and young people are alerted to danger, things are at a point where perpetrators can say that the youth wanted it to happen.
What can you do? Whether you engage in deep exploration with a survivor depends on your role, but the recommendations below are useful for anyone, professional or not, to whom a young person voluntarily discloses abuse. Encourage survivors to seek counseling from a qualified mental health professional, as well—therapeutic interventions do work. Not surprisingly, many of the tips for working with male survivors echo best practices for trauma-informed care, including:
- Build a sense of trust and safety by giving young people control. Your first question should always be “what can I do to make you feel safe right now?’ Avoid physical contact, especially following disclosures.
- Allow survivors to tell their story in their own way. Since memories formed during traumatic experiences are not linear, details may seem disordered or insignificant. But saying, ‘when you’re ready, just tell me what you remember’ will invite free recall and lower anxiety.
- Give survivors time and don’t rush. Avoid conversational place holders like, ‘really,’ and ‘I understand.’ If you’re restating something for clarity, don’t do it in a way that seems to minimize or trivialize what was said. Be mindful of your own tone of voice and volume; you want to be soothing, slow-paced, and nonreactive.
- Do not make assumptions about a young person’s sexuality, or feelings about sex or the abuser. You don’t know how they feel about the perpetrator, and survivors may have mixed feelings that fill them with shame. Also, many males do not identify themselves as victims (particularly when the perpetrator is female). In this case, focusing more on the power and control dynamics of their relationship can help young people understand that what they experienced was abusive and harmful.
- To help young people feel more in control, give them information, and let them lead the way. Be attuned to nonverbal signs that survivors are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, and do whatever you can to lower that anxiety. If you’re accompanying them to legal proceedings, give them a tour of the space beforehand.
- Don’t risk breaking trust by making promises you can’t keep. Don’t promise this will never happen again, or that they won’t have to testify, or that you won’t tell anyone.
- And finally, thank young people for their courage and for telling you about what happened. ‘Thank you’ is a powerful gesture that can help raise a young person’s self-esteem.
Presenters ended the session by reminding us that there’s a big difference between the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of healing. Survivors want to be heard, to heal and to feel safe. If you’re working with a survivor, you should always put the young person’s wellbeing above ‘the case.’ Make sure that preserving his/her sense of emotional and psychological safety comes first.
For more resources on working with male survivors of child sexual abuse, click here.
~ Jen Smith, Research Associate
We’ve produced a second short video describing our experiences implementing the Teen Outreach Program™ with high-need foster care youth in Connecticut. TOP is the focus of an Office of Adolescent Health-funded demonstration grant promoting evidence-based approaches to preventing unplanned pregnancy with young people in therapeutic settings. These youth are at particularly high risk for both pregnancy and school failure, both of which TOP has been shown to impact in mainstream youth. Our project is one of the first in the country to use the model with young people receiving special services for emotional, behavioral and learning issues.
Watch the videos to find out what TOP is like, and to feel inspired about what’s possible.
All young people in foster care have experienced difficulties, and some display emotional and behavioral challenges because of those difficulties. This subset of foster care youth can be particularly difficult to engage. There are ways to do it, though. We know, because, via our OAH-funded demonstration project focusing on teen pregnancy prevention in Connecticut, we found one!
This short video is the first is a series looking at what it’s like delivering the Teen Outreach Program to teens in therapeutic settings — alternative and charter schools, group homes, and other community-based programs. Watch it to find out what TOP is like, but also feel inspired about what’s possible.
Click on the video below, or here: When Foster Youth Feel Safe, They Open Up
In any 12-month period, 21% of youth will have a diagnosable mental health disorder. In the US alone, that adds up to millions of young people every year. Even if we could identify them all, not all of them could be treated—at least not in the traditional way. But isn’t the traditional way all there is?
Well, no, says Dr. David Mohr, Director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies (CBIT) at Northwestern University. Mobile phones, tablets, sensors and computers have tremendous capacity to deliver mental health treatment and support in far easier and cheaper ways—ways that can reach many more youth who need help. We just need to figure out the best ways to do it.
Mohr cautions that we’re not quite there yet.
To make his point, Mohr, who appeared last month at a National Institute of Medicine-sponsored panel in Washington, D.C. on prevention science in children’s mental health, pointed to the 40,000 health-related apps currently available for smartphones. About 2,000 of them are for specific conditions. Most of them are free. So much for the good news. The bad news is that most have never been studied for effectiveness; most that are downloaded aren’t used; those that are used aren’t used consistently; and there’s no way of knowing what small percentage of them ever reach the people who could actually benefit from them.
“Stand-alone web-based treatments probably work for some people, but generally do not have a big impact. If you put a human behind it in the form of a coach, you get much larger effect sizes — effect sizes that start to look like the kind of effect sizes you see in treatment.”
Even if they have been studied and are targeted to exactly the right people, they still probably won’t work very well. Mohr cites MoodGYM, a popular app from Australia that is supposed to prevent depression. Yet evaluations showed that people who used the app did just as well by visiting informational websites about depression.
Not surprisingly, simply referring young people to a canned resource, even one with interactive features, isn’t enough to change complex behaviors. For that, youth need actual people, even if those people are behind-the-scenes coaches who the youth never or rarely actually see.
“Stand-alone web-based treatments probably work for some people,” Mohr said, “but generally do not have a big impact. If you put a human behind it in the form of a coach, you get much larger effect sizes—effect sizes that start to look like the kind of effect sizes you see in treatment. And this coach support does not have to be 45 minutes with the therapist on the phone. A lot of this coaching [involves only] very brief phone calls or text support.”
Checking in with a client—even conducting substantial therapy—online, via email or text, isn’t as flimsy an idea as it sounds, Mohr says, since research indicates that “leaner” communication stripped of traditional visual cues forces both parties to make positive assumptions about the other. The client simply has to believe the practitioner wants to help and is an expert in helping. Both sides are accountable to the other, but in e-relationships, the accountability is embedded in the technology itself.
Other uses of mobile technology include:
- Directly texting young people to remind them to take a medication, or even having a ‘smart’ medication dispenser that texts the practitioner when the client has missed a dose.
- With permission, using ‘mobile sensing’ to harvest data from clients’ phones, such as where they are and what they’re looking at on the internet—information that could be critical for clients at risk.
Better apps are coming, too—ones that actually work when used consistently and in tandem with a practitioner. In the meantime, Mohr advises mental health experts to build the principles behind the treatment, not the apps themselves. That should be done in partnership with the tech folks, who can be charged with rapidly developing prototypes (many of which can include components that have already been developed), and then helping to test them. Practitioners also need to be thinking about how BITS can be embedded in existing mental health delivery systems, because how practitioners adapt to them is as important as how clients do.
~ Melanie Wilson, Youth Catalytics Research Director