Summary of Rappaport Fellowship Experience
Friday, July 19, 2013
Sustaining the Gains: Promoting Positive Change among Youth
in the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System
by: Robey B. Champine, M.S., M.P.H.
As a Radcliffe/Rappaport Doctoral Policy Fellow and Ph.D. student in Applied Child Development at Tufts University, I am partnering with practitioners at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) to better understand how to identify and capitalize on the strengths and abilities of youth in the juvenile justice system. Consistent with current developmental research, DYS recognizes that focusing on reducing recidivism and correcting young offenders’ problem behaviors alone may not equip these youth with the skills that they need to do well in school, find jobs, develop positive relationships, and become thriving and law-abiding members of the community. As part of efforts to improve public safety and promote positive change among youth in the agency’s care, I am working with DYS to shift its approach from problem-focused to strength-based, and to provide youth with the resources (the “developmental assets”) they need to thrive. This work involves efforts to provide youth with opportunities to develop important skills and supportive relationships with peers, family members, mentors, and providers, so that the gains that youth make while in custody are sustained when they are released.
Throughout the summer, I have enjoyed opportunities to observe DYS adolescents’ diverse skills and talents and to work with agency professionals who are passionate about helping these youth realize their potential. One highlight of my experience was attending a DYS youth art show that showcased adolescents’ paintings and poetry and featured musical and theatrical performances. Through the use of different artistic media, the youth conveyed their struggles to overcome deeply rooted emotional and behavioral problems and obstacles that they face in school, at home, and in their neighborhoods. I was moved to see how excited and proud the youth were to perform and share their stories with the large crowd of attendees, and to witness these young people encouraging and supporting each other. It was equally inspiring to hear some youth share their professional goals (which included aspirations for careers in the law and military) during a career readiness class that I attended at one residential program. Despite the hardships these youth have experienced, their motivation and potential to change for the better were evident.
DYS is making great strides in its mission to empower youth to lead productive and fulfilling lives. More work needs to be done to better understand the extent to which strength-based initiatives impact participating youth, their families, DYS staff, and other important stakeholders. As part of these efforts, I am working with DYS to explore how we can supplement existing measures of risk and recidivism with measures of thriving in order to examine how, when, and why positive (or negative) change occurs among DYS youth, and to understand why differences between adolescents may exist. In other words, why do some DYS youth appear to thrive while others do not? We hope to measure positive or negative cognitive, emotional, and social change in order to identify individual and environmental developmental assets associated with adolescents who thrive, and to assess if there are deficiencies in assets among youth who do not show positive and healthy functioning. This information may enhance our understanding of the characteristics of resilience among juvenile offenders. In addition, this information may help DYS to make more informed decisions about how to use programs and resources in efforts to enhance adolescents’ developmental assets and to improve their likelihood of positive outcomes.
In sum, my experiences as a Radcliffe/Rappaport Doctoral Policy Fellow have enabled me to integrate my passion for developmental and criminological research with my long-held commitment to improving the health and safety of adolescents and communities. I strongly identify with the mission of the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation to create widespread positive change through innovative and collaborative research. I am extremely grateful for this fellowship opportunity, which has fostered my growth as a researcher and enriched my understanding of how to use theory-predicated research to advance policy and practice.