Deborah Gorman-Smith

Tackling Youth Violence - Community Resources and Collaboration Produce Positive Outcomes

What puts kids at risk for youth violence? Deborah Gorman-Smith, the Emily Klein Gidwitz Professor at the School of Social Service Administration (SSA), admits the answer to this question is multifaceted.

“It’s a hard question to answer because we know there are many factors that put youth at risk including individual behavior and the context in which youth live,” says Gorman-Smith.  

For the past 20 years, however, it’s been her goal to build a science around the prevention of this rapidly growing problem. Violence is particularly devastating for Chicago’s youth: Between 2009-2014, 319 (or 12.4 percent) of the city’s murder victims were age 17 or younger. As principal investigator and director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, Gorman-Smith knows the answers can’t come soon enough. 

Housed at the SSA, the Center for Youth Violence Prevention studies the underlying causes of youth violence through evidence-based, collaborative interventions that focus on families and communities, linking them with schools, the justice system, social service agencies, and policy makers.  

Established 10 years ago, it is one of six National Academic Centers of Excellence for Youth Violence Prevention funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In September, the Center received a $6.3 million grant for another five years from the CDC. 

This funding allows the center to delve deeper into violence prevention. “In a recent study we conducted in high-risk Chicago neighborhoods, we found that among 15- and 17-year-olds, 87 percent had been exposed to some form of violence, while 32 percent had a close friend or family member murdered, and 18 percent had witnessed a shooting that resulted in death,” says Gorman-Smith.

By examining maps of shootings in some Chicago neighborhoods, Gorman-Smith and her team discovered there is literally no place for kids to go without being exposed to violence. “There’s always this conversation about parents protecting their kids, but it’s impossible in some neighborhoods,” she says. 

In most circumstances, it’s also impossible to protect their mental health. Exposure to violence is associated with a host of behavioral and mental health problems including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, aggression, delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor academic functioning. Gorman-Smith says this exposure also disrupts the developing brain while impairing cell growth and damaging the brain’s stress-response system. “We don’t fully understand the variation in response, but we do understand that violence is changing the biology of kids who are living in these neighborhoods in fundamental ways.” 

However, through the center’s partnerships with several schools, they have seen success in many forms. Much of the center’s work has been devoted to effective violence prevention efforts by developing and testing interventions. For example, a decade ago, Gorman-Smith and her colleagues established a program called SAFE Children that focuses on helping parents of first graders. Parents are taught to get involved in their children’s school, to develop consistent discipline and monitoring practices, and to use other parents and families for information and support. “By the time these first graders entered high school, they were 50 percent more likely to be on track for graduation and half as likely to have had a violent incident in school, compared to a control group of students who did not participate in the program,” says Gorman-Smith. 

Additionally, her team has concluded that the most effective way to combat youth violence is to coordinate pre-intervention work to understand the risk and development of violence and to evaluate preventive interventions both under tightly controlled conditions (i.e., randomized control efficacy trials) and in real-world settings. The interventions that they’ve conducted have all been tested through randomized control trials. 

Despite the successes, Gorman-Smith knows there’s still a lot of work to be done, but is also proud of what the center has accomplished thus far.

“I hope that our work is contributing to the science to understand violence and violence prevention, understanding the nature and consequences of both victimization and perpetration of violence.  And understanding what works to prevent violence, at the individual level, but also at the level of the community.  People have asked us, “What do we need to make a significant change in violence?” In the past I’ve said that social and economic equality would go a long way to ending violence, but in the meanwhile . . . I’ve said that our work is focused on and helping kids and families have the best outcomes in the circumstances in which they live. While we have to keep moving on our part of the science, we need to coordinate our scientific and advocacy efforts to move to the next level and make fundamental changes to neighborhoods where kids and families are growing up surrounded by violence and poverty, and lacking some of the most basic social resources needed to help support healthy development. All these factors are related to the problem of violence. Now has to be the meanwhile.”

— Tanya R. Cochran

Learn More about Gorman-Smith's research here.