Throughout Virginia, youth violence is getting a lot of attention these days, according to a new state report. That's the good news.
The problem, the Virginia Department of Health report concluded, is that there is a lot of duplication in efforts to prevent youth violence, a lack of sharing of information and not enough objective evaluation of what really works.
In the report, called "Youth Violence Prevention in Virginia: A Needs Assessment," University of Virginia researchers found an "almost bewildering array" of strategies, programs and projects dealing with juvenile delinquency and violence in the state.
"We had no idea how many [programs] there are out there--hundreds, depending on how you count them," said Dewey G. Cornell, the project director. "A large segment were unaware of other resources."
Although some areas across the state have a lot of resources devoted to youth violence prevention, others have none at all, Cornell said.
"This embarrassment of riches brings duplication, a lack of sharing of information," he said. "There is a regional need for greater communication, as well as statewide need for greater coordination of services."
That is what the state Health Department's Center for Injury and Violence Prevention wanted to hear: an assessment of the problem and how it can be better addressed.
The Health Department commissioned the Virginia Youth Violence Project, at U-Va.'s Curry School of Education, to prepare the report. From October through May, a team of researchers cast a wide net, collecting a vast amount of information about youth violence using surveys, interviews and databases.
"It was really meant to be a broad sweep look at the issues on youth violence and needs," said Erima Fobbs, director of the Center for Injury and Violence Prevention. "I think the study will bring people together."
Local agencies often lack timely and relevant information about the nature and extent of the problem, according to the 130-page report.
Unlike other states, for example, Virginia does not have a statewide youth survey to track alcohol and drug use or other high-risk behaviors.
The report also points out that the state Department of Education collects annual reports on school crime and violence, but the information is already dated by the time it is disseminated.
"We need good information about what is happening in our schools," Cornell said. "The data that comes from individual schools takes one to two years to filter to the public."
According to the report, juvenile arrests for violent offenses in Virginia, and across the country, rose sharply in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In recent years, there has been a decline, but current violent crime rates are still well above those in the early 1980s.
In many ways, the fact that so much attention is devoted to the problem in both the public and private sectors is understandable, the researchers said.
"To a certain extent, this complexity of effort is unavoidable and even necessary because youth violence is not a single problem amenable to a single solution," they wrote.
The problem of youth violence touches many institutions, including families, schools, law enforcement and juvenile justice, the researchers said. Moreover, a strategy that works in one community may not be suited for another.
But the researchers said that too many prevention efforts rely on unproven methods that have been selected in the rush to try to fix the problem. With proper planning, support and funding, such proven programs as mentoring, character education and bullying reduction can be successful, they concluded.
Said Fobbs, of the Health Department's Center for Injury and Violence Prevention: "I do think at the state level we all want to work to coordinate our efforts better. We strongly believe in early intervention and supporting parents."