From Risk to Relationship

Field studies in juvenile centers are rare. So Inderbitzin wanted to observe and talk with the boys, to evaluate their stories against the background of theories on delinquency and criminal justice.

(Illustration: Edel Rodriguez)
(Illustration: Edel Rodriguez)

In 1998, Michelle Inderbitzin decided to conduct a study of youth in a detention center for violent offenders. Almost every Saturday morning for 15 months, the University of Washington graduate student in sociology made the 90-minute drive from Seattle to an “end-of-the-line training school” for boys convicted of multiple property crimes, armed robberies, violent and/or sexual assaults and homicides. In the “cottage” where she worked, most of the 20 or so inmates, many of them gang members from poor urban neighborhoods, had been sentenced for robberies and “drug deals gone bad.” She was little older than the center’s residents.

Field studies in juvenile centers are rare. So Inderbitzin wanted to observe and talk with the boys, to evaluate their stories against the background of theories on delinquency and criminal justice. She hung out in a common room where residents talked, played games and watched TV, taking notes only after she left.

At first, the reception was cold. Inmates ignored her, later saying they expected her to give up and leave. The staff kept a close eye on her. Eventually one of the older youths, a 19-year-old Hispanic boy respected by the others, approached her and began to talk. He took some heat from his peers, but gradually, others followed, sharing details of their lives, their dreams, frustrations and unsettled scores that awaited them back home. Staff members also talked frankly with Inderbitzin about the futures for boys who would return to their communities as young men with criminal records.

Now an associate professor of sociology at Oregon State University, Inderbitzin has published eight journal articles about her observations and findings. In addition, she shares her knowledge with OSU students through courses on criminal justice and deviant behavior. In 2007, she became the first university professor on the West Coast to lead a class of students and men’s prison inmates through the national Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which promotes understanding of the criminal justice system.

Hallie Ford spent a lifetime advocating for youth and families

Hallie Ford
Her work will continue to inspire research in the new Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families at OSU. Prompted by an $8 million gift from her estate, the OSU College of Health and Human Sciences will build on existing strengths of the faculty and anticipate the needs and challenges of children and families. Targeted research areas include: obesity prevention, early childhood development, vulnerable children and families, and risky and protective behaviors for youth. The goal is, according to Professor Rick Settersten, interim co-director with Associate Dean Jeff McCubbin, “to serve as a catalyst for innovative research that will matter in the everyday lives of children and families.”

Plans call for construction of a new facility after OSU raises an additional $2 million, as required by Hallie Ford’s gift.

Find more information about the center.

While Inderbitzin’s direct approach to one of the most troubled edges of today’s youth culture was unusual, her desire to address problems by building on the positive attributes of our children and teens is not. Colleagues at OSU are tackling some of the most pressing challenges that confront families and youth: the development of positive behaviors; the channeling of youthful energy to meet community needs; the lengthening transition to adulthood.

Initiatives span the age range from child to early adult. They focus on issues such as readiness to learn, nutrition, obesity, risky behaviors and social policies. And the newly endowed Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families will foster new collaborations among researchers, families and professionals in education and child welfare agencies (see sidebar).

These efforts are being noticed. “OSU has put together an extraordinary group of people who are at the cutting edge of developmental science,” says Richard M. Lerner, an international leader in youth development at Tufts University. Developmental science tends to look at youth through a “deficit lens,” but he argues that success will come from promoting their strengths. Accordingly, OSU is combining high quality science with good practice, Lerner adds, and approaching youth as resources to be developed instead of problems to be solved. The author of more than 65 books, Lerner gave the first presentation at the Duncan and Cynthia Campbell Lecture Series on Childhood Relationships, Risk and Resilience, sponsored by the College of Health and Human Sciences in April 2007.

Positive and Universal

In 1975, a high school English teacher in Idaho identified what she thought were the common elements of effective character development for youth. “I was idealistic, like most beginning teachers, and I wanted to make a difference,” says Carol Allred, who is affiliated with the OSU Department of Public Health and owns Positive Action, Inc., a national character education company in Twin Falls.

In her classes, she created lessons to teach students to build self-esteem through intentionally positive behaviors. With support from the Idaho Youth Commission and federal agencies (Department of Justice, Centers for Disease Control), she expanded her program to the elementary grades. Five years later, when the grant money dried up, she started her company.

“In the first, year, we set a goal of getting the Positive Action program into 25 schools. At the end of that time, it was in 80,” she says. The company now counts 13,000 schools, mostly in the United States, as past and current clients.

At about the same time that Allred was launching her business, a public health researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago was developing a theory that defines effective ways to reduce risky behavior by youth. His vision: Address the common underpinnings of smoking, drugs, violence and dropping out of school, and you reduce the incidence of all such behaviors simultaneously. Preventing problems before they develop is key, says Brian Flay, now a professor of public health at OSU.

“The broader sociocultural environment influences all of our behaviors. It’s the same with kids. And family interactions influence kids’ developmental trajectories. Bonding with your family and bonding with your school influence all of your behaviors. Not just smoking, not just drugs, not just violence. Everything,” Flay explains.

Flay embarked on a series of systematic studies to determine if such prevention techniques actually worked, and he developed a program known as Aban Aya for inner-city African-American schools in Chicago to put his theory into action. After meeting Allred and learning of Positive Action, he focused his work on the Positive Action program. “I had this comprehensive theory in need of a comprehensive program and she had a comprehensive program in need of a comprehensive theory,” says Flay. Their professional compatibility took a personal turn when they married in 2000.

With grants from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education, Flay has compared the rate of risky behaviors in schools that have adopted Positive Action with those that have not. He and teams of independent collaborators have focused on a range of school settings, from the inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago to urban and rural communities in the Southeast, Utah and Hawaii. Using data from school report cards, student surveys, teacher interviews and other sources, they have shown that Positive Action improves academic performance and reduces negative behaviors in elementary, middle and high schools.

For example, in a large southeastern school district, scores on the Florida Reading Test improved by 40 percent, and out-of-school suspensions declined by 29.6 percent in elementary schools that used the Positive Action program. In middle schools, the larger the number of students who had experienced Positive Action in earlier grades, the lower the rate of documented “problem behaviors,” as much as 75 percent less. Results from randomized trials in Chicago and Hawaii replicate these and other results.

Positive Action is the only character development program certified by the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse to effectively change both behaviors and academic performance.

“Design the right kind of program and you can change multiple factors that end up influencing multiple outcomes,” says Flay. “We reduce violence and substance abuse as measured by kids’ reports, as measured by teachers’ reports and by school-level data like disciplinary referrals and academic standardized test scores. It’s a rich combination of data that is consistently showing effects.”

The Positive Action philosophy is disarmingly simple, adds Allred. Student success stems from “feeling good about who you are, what you’re doing and how you treat others.” Other youth programs promote similar benefits, she says. Through the company’s educational kits for schools, families and communities, “we’re raising that to a conscious level. We empower kids by helping them to understand that thoughts and actions lead to feelings. Our philosophy is intuitive and universal.”

The Most Vulnerable

As parents know, children’s needs change from one stage of development to another, and the stakes rise as teens approach adulthood. All too quickly an itch for the latest Harry Potter book becomes a request for the car keys. For young adults looking for the key to a career, the global economy poses challenges their parents did not face: fewer manufacturing jobs, a more diverse work force and a more technically demanding labor market. In response to these and other factors, many youth disengage from social institutions after high school (see sidebar).

That concerns Rick Settersten, whose analyses of the transition to adulthood show that, as economic forces grind against personal aspirations and social programs, the support networks for young adults fray. For example, he says, the trade unions that used to protect and support young men from working-class and disadvantaged backgrounds have all but disappeared, along with the pockets of the economy that used to absorb them. So, too, have the loyalty of corporations and the certainty of benefits for the middle class. The “common, collective set of commitments” that emerged from the New Deal is unraveling.

The net result: “You fend for yourself. You’re responsible for your own welfare. You make your own choices and live with the consequences. The rub is that old assumptions about life don’t hold anymore; life is full of new and unforeseen risks. Governments and markets don’t absorb them. Individuals and their families do,” says Settersten.

A professor in human development and family sciences at OSU, Settersten is also a member of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy. He and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Princeton and other universities have analyzed national and international datasets (the U.S. Census, public attitude surveys and youth development studies) to reveal how income, gender, race and other factors affect the ability of youth to become independent, to establish sound personal relationships and to launch productive careers — in short, to become responsible adults.

“It is simply not possible for most young people to achieve economic and psychological autonomy as early as they once did. Most kids from families with some resources and connections fare pretty well. They just need more support to get there, and they’ll get there late,” says Settersten.

The most vulnerable are those young adults whose fates have been tied to public programs and policies. “Whether they’ve come from fragile families, or they’ve been tied to the juvenile justice system or special education, they are abruptly cut off from support when they reach 18 or 21. If middle-class kids are getting so much support to make it through the 20s, what is the plight of kids who don’t have those types and levels of supports?” Settersten asks.

To increase the chances of success for these youth, Settersten and his colleagues suggest that educational institutions, workplaces, social services and policies must be organized in more coordinated, rather than piecemeal, ways. In their 2005 book, On the Frontier of Adulthood, they propose a policy agenda built on greater flexibility and communication among community colleges and universities, employers and the military. They also point to opportunities for public service and mentoring as critical in facilitating the skills and capacities of young people.


Michelle Inderbitzin’s study revealed how difficult it can be to develop solutions for youth who put themselves at greater risk by making serious mistakes. Despite having been caught and imprisoned, many in the detention center saw criminal activities as a way to make money and earn respect. Some told her outright that they would return to those activities after they were released.

Amid such grim observations, she saw signs of hope: examples of creative writing and music, awarding of high-school equivalency certificates, discussions about education and career options. It was the staff members, though, who were the day-to-day heroes.

“It took me a while to figure out that the staff were really raising these kids. They called them their ‘sons.’ It was a little bit of a joke. To each other, they would say, ‘Oh, your son needs you.’ But there was a reality there,” says Inderbitzin.

One picture that she can’t forget is that of a staff member teaching a boy how to shave at a bathroom mirror. “The kid was going through puberty and had to shave for the first time. It was an extraordinary moment,” she says.

The staff were mostly male, including ex-military officers and former college athletes, some with families of their own. They attempted to help their boys by bringing in community college applications and information about financial aid. They counseled them on personal relationships, job prospects and how to discuss a criminal record in an interview. Although cautioned against it, some even followed up after their “sons” were released, listening to stories of frustration in dead-end jobs and encouraging them to be patient and stay clean.

The net result, Inderbitzin has written, was that the staff helped their “sons” to revise their expectations of cashing in on the American Dream. Sociologists have theorized that youth with few legal options for advancement seek wealth and status by any means available, including criminal activity. For the staff, the often-unrealized hope was that their boys would accept less wealth and status in exchange for the relative safety of conforming to social norms.

For Inderbitzin, hope appeared in the boys who showed leadership potential through their intelligence and communication skills. One boy in particular stood out: a “born leader, funny, smart, able to communicate well with the different groups in the center.” Inderbitzin communicated with him briefly after his release but then lost contact and heard that he was back in prison on a gun-possession charge. “What a horrible waste,” she says.

Nevertheless, like many of the detention center staff that she interviewed, she retains an unshakable belief in the potential for youth to overcome even these difficult barriers. “I just don’t understand giving up on them when they’re 16, 17 or 18 at the time of their offense. It doesn’t seem like good logic to say ‘we’re done.’”

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.