Inside a family-based approach to reach youth most at risk of committing violence

By Jillian Slutzker

April 28, 2017

In five of Honduras’ highest crime municipalities, family counselors are making in-roads working with 800 families with members between ages 8 to 17 at the highest risk of participating in violence.

Operating in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, Choloma, La Ceiba and Tela, the innovative violence prevention project called Proponte Más has trained counselors to use an evidence-based risk assessment to identify youth most at risk of joining gangs. Over the course of a year, they work in close partnership their families to change the family dynamics and lower the risk factors for gang joining.  

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International, Proponte Más also provides targeted support to first-time or nonviolent juvenile offenders to help improve their chances of reintegration after a period of incarceration or detention.

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Counselors meet regularly with families and youth to address risk behaviors and develop positive strategies for problem-solving. Photo by Gustavo Ochoa.

Proponte Más has generated impressive quantitative results in reductions in risk factors and associated behaviors with the population at a secondary level of risk—those at the highest risk of commit violence.

For example, behaviors such as carrying concealed weapons, drug trafficking or group fights with gangs, among others, are connected to a risk factor known as “Delinquency Associated with Substance Abuse.

After just six months of family intervention, youth in the program showed significant declines in this risk factors: An average reduction of 30.2 percent in Tegucigalpa; 34.4 percent in La Ceiba; 30.8 percent in Tela; 33.3 percent in San Pedro Sula; and 38.7 percent in Choloma. Beyond the statistics, the risk reductions also contributed to improvements in safety for the families.

Robyn Braverman, Chief of Party for the project, and Guillermo Cespedes, Deputy Chief of Party, help to explain the context, process and results to date of this family-centered, evidence-based approach to reaching the most vulnerable youth and stemming violence.

How does violence, either within the family or in the neighborhood, affect family life?

“What we see overall is that our work should emphasize what assets the family has that we can build on, as opposed to focusing on what is missing!”

Robyn Braverman, Chief of Party for Proponte Más

Robyn Braverman: Violence has affected family life in Honduras perhaps as much as migration has affected family life. However, what has surprised us in our work with Proponte Más, is the resilience and willingness of families that live in these high risk communities to form a partnership with us with the goal of keeping their children safe.

What Proponte Más has found is that as we go in to work with families—and I want to emphasize the fact that we intervene with families and change the choreography in the dance of families—we found is that even our perception of family was different. Whereas we thought that perhaps most of the families of youth we’d be working with are fractured or divided already, we find that over 50 percent of the youth at a secondary level and tertiary level of risk live in a household that have a father or male paternal figure and a mother or male maternal figure.

More importantly 65.5 percent of those youth report that they receive emotional support and acceptance, while 88.5 percent report that they receive it from the maternal figure.

In Proponte Más, we see this as an asset to build on, and families have been responding and fighting this battle and really making a valiant attempt to rescue what is good in the family and to take on the role of protector and advocate for the rest of their children and the rest of their family. What we see overall is that our work should emphasize what assets the family has that we can build on, as opposed to focusing on what is missing!

How does violence in the neighborhood or a societal perception or fear of youth as potential gang members affect how youth see themselves?

Robyn Braverman: I think there is a faulty narrative that paints youth in Honduras exclusively through the lens of criminality.  One of the things that we’re trying to do is change that perception of youth through the use of data, even when it relates to those youth that have been incarcerated and many sectors of society has given up on them.

Recently we trained Honduran government partners on the process of the Youth Service Eligibility Tool (or YSET) diagnostic, and proceeded to assess 90 percent (433) of the youth population incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities. Much to our surprise 35 percent were confirmed to be at a primary level of risk, which merits at least questioning if this is the best rehabilitation alternative for these youth.

What do we mean when we say “at-risk youth”?

Guillermo Cespedes: The definition of “at-risk youth” until recently was very vague and general and unintendedly has fueled the assumption that all young people living in communities with high levels of violence, gang presence and poverty are at the same level of risk.  This thinking led to the applications of the same violence prevention “medicine” applied all youth in high risk communities.

We now know that interventions are most effective when they are targeted to specific risk levels. Based on a data sample of 2,189 youth from the most violent communities in Honduras 1,483, or 68 percent of them, have tested at a primary level of risk—meaning that at least scientifically they are not at risk of joining gangs. It also means that they can be kept safe through primary prevention programs such as the Outreach Centers developed by Creative Associates International.

Of this population, 533 or 24 percent tested at a secondary level of risk—meaning they are scientifically at risk of joining gangs and can be effectively deterred by intervening at a family system’s level. After six months of family interventions we find that 73.5 percent of the youth at a secondary level have reduced their risk factors to the less serious primary level.

As far as those that may have a more serious involvement with gangs, we found that only 8 percent, or 173 youth, were assessed at a tertiary level.

In other words, the majority of youth in this age group even in the most violent communities of Honduras are not gang members as some narratives appear to suggest. Creative is leading the efforts in advocating for the right level of intervention based on the level of risk of each individual.

What are some of the strategies that family counselors are using to get to those risky behaviors and interrupt them?

“The counselors’ main goal is to get everybody in the family organized around implementing new solutions to a particular behavior.”

Guillermo Cespedes, Deputy Chief of Party for Proponte Más

Guillermo Cespedes: The counselors’ main goal is to get everybody in the family organized around implementing new solutions to a particular behavior. That behavior might be that this kid goes out of the house, he meets with his friends, he uses drugs, and as a result, he may potentially go out and commit crimes.

We can’t go into the streets with him or with her, but we can certainly work with the family to try to figure out how to monitor him differently. Every counselor is working with all the members of the family around that, basic monitoring.

We work with families because for the most part, they are some of the most influential persons around the young person and can serve as both motivators and holders of accountability.

Our focus with families at two levels: 1) We work with families to identify additional sources of support and pride across generations through the use of asset-based multi-generational mapping, referred to as genograms. This means literally or symbolically including multiple generations in the process of the work. 2) The second level focusses on those members that live together and or have daily contact, and in that area we focus on helping families design more effective problem solving strategies.

What are some of the assets that counselors find already existing that can be strengthened?

Guillermo Cespedes: Robyn already highlighted some of the assets related to the relationship with mothers and fathers.

We also find that we tend to underestimate the level of coping and resiliency that families have to develop to survive in these communities. And as a parent, to me, I see it as heroic, some of the things that these families can sustain. There’s cohesion. There’s an emphasis on paying tribute to the elders. There’s a basic sense of family, both those who live together and the multigenerational families. So, all those things are strengths.

The more supportive, consistent and loving people around you, the more a young person’s risk of engaging in criminal or illicit behavior decreases. A healthy community is a strong protective factor.

The project emphasizes changing behaviors, not criminalizing gang identity. Why make this distinction?

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In La Ceiba, family counselors work with youth and families in the Garifuna population, a minority group that has traditionally experienced lower levels of violence. However, in risk assessments conducted by the project, several Garifuna youth showed risk factors at a secondary risk level. Photo by Jillian Slutzker.

Guillermo Cespedes: This is a philosophy that is informed by lessons learned from U.S. cities that have focused on identity rather than behavior and have unwittingly strengthened that identity. The war on gangs that lasted several decades in Los Angeles is a strategy that focused on gang identity and led to the criminalization of large numbers of youth based on what they looked like, where they lived, or who their friends were.

Our emphasis is Proponte Más is to collaborate with families to help them change behaviors that can be measured rather than emphasize where the family lives, or how the youth dresses. We want to focus on what the young person is is doing, what is his or her behavior. We want to know what does he/she does and how family members can be helpful in re directing that behavior. Our goal is to identify as many members of the family the family and wrap them around the young person in order to promote pro social behaviors.  

At a broad community level, whether we’re working with violence associated with gangs, violence associated with extremist groups, any form of violence, our history shows that things get worse when we focus on how people look, how they dress, what neighborhood they live in, what ethnicity they are, whether they speak Spanish or not, whether they speak another language.

What are the challenges for a young person re-entering society after a confrontation with the justice system? Is reintegration possible?

Robyn Braverman: You have to look at the juvenile justice system in the bigger context. One of the challenges that Proponte Más has found with juvenile justice is that it’s defined solely through a legal lens, and what we’re finding is that it should be also defined through a broader lens that includes evidence based risk factors.

I think Honduras is looking at the possibilities through Proponte Más interventions—through both our interventions with grants on a community level but also in helping to think about new programs that receive kids who have alternative sentencing and help them to reintegrate.

Do I believe that reintegration is possible? Absolutely. There is a social stigma attached to those who are incarcerated or detained, and this type of thinking can hinder a young person for the rest of his or her life. I think everybody deserves a second chance, but especially kids.

What is the long-term hope or goal for each family?

Guillermo Cespedes: Every family comes to a point where their problem-solving mechanism gets jammed. Our job is to first help the family unjam that problem-solving mechanism and then help them to identify what to do to do that when it gets jammed again. The road to a healthy and prosocial lifestyle is not a straight line; there is no such thing as a family that’s going to find it’s perfect path overnight. What we’re trying to teach families is how

Ultimately, strong families will lead to strong kids who will be better equipped to fight the temptation or perceived necessity of engaging in criminal activities or joining gangs.

What makes this project unique?

Robyn Braverman: I just think the intervention is fantastic. I think it doesn’t seem so novel, but the novelty of taking a strategy team of counselors and meeting a family in their home is quite novel and pretty outstanding.

I think what I find most outstanding is how we get there. And I’m not lying when I say you’ve got to cross a bridge, sometimes you have to make a bridge. We counted 200 steps going up one – to one house, 200 steps down, then crossing another little bridge.

It validates the family immensely. To me, that’s the most inspiring; seeing the discipline of our counselors and how they use a systematic family counseling approach, how hard it is to not get emotionally involved, and how disciplined and rigorous this approach is, and how much evidence comes out of this that can really help us to prove that we’re reducing violence.

One more thing that I’m really proud of is how many small changes I’ve seen in the families and how excited they seem to have tools to help them rethink their relationships, both as parents or family members toward a child and vice-versa. The level of accountability that this project makes people feel and want to have is really remarkable.

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