Crime and violence prevention

Violence remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States, disproportionately affecting the young urban poor. During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 25 times more Americans were murdered in the United States than died on the battlefield.

Taking the lead among US schools of social work, the School of Social Service Administration is not only training the future leaders who will work to reduce violence’s steep human and economic costs but also testing strategies for doing so. The simple, yet ambitious goal: to understand violence and how to prevent it. Three SSA research programs address this challenge by focusing on different stages of life where violence can be prevented—infancy, grade school, and the teen years.

Early prevention and family support

The victimization of a child before age three is one of the most potent predictors of violent behavior in later life. Neurological and psychological evidence shows that the quality of the child-parent bond in infancy shapes either healthy or violence-prone trajectories in children. SSA researchers have piloted an early intervention method using specialized home-based services and conducted cost-benefit analyses proving that the public saves four dollars in future child-abuse services for every dollar spent on these programs. This inexpensive intervention can help eliminate early childhood trauma, subsequent medical and mental-health consequences, and the precursors to violent behavior later in life.

Youth and community

SSA’s Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (CCYVP) is one of only six US academic centers of excellence funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Led by Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith (above, right), CCYVP conducts seminal longitudinal studies that follow children from childhood to adulthood and determine the multiple factors that put children at risk—from the characteristics of a neighborhood to characteristics of an individual child. Gorman-Smith’s work has demonstrated that interventions during grade school years can prevent children—and their families—from becoming ensnared in the grip of gangs and violence as teens.

Crime and policing

The University of Chicago Crime Lab—founded by Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy is bridging the research gap between the causes of crime and violence and the effectiveness of the policies implemented to address them. Police officials and policymakers in Chicago, as well as in the White House, have turned to the Crime Lab to learn how to use resources most effectively and what strategies produce the biggest impact.

The Crime Lab conducted a large-scale randomized trial of a dropout and violence prevention program called Becoming a Man (BAM), which was carried out in partnership with the Chicago Public Schools and two local nonprofits. The research proved that high school youth from one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods who participated in BAM had a 44 percent reduction in violent crime arrests, as well as significant improvements in school attendance and class participation. A cost-benefit analysis of the program reported a minimum savings to the public of three dollars for every one spent on the program.

Developing leaders

Each of these research programs is helping to improve our understanding of violence and how to prevent it. Yet SSA’s largest contribution to violence prevention may be its practice of involving social work students directly with these studies. By doing so, it is educating future leaders who will carry a rigorous approach to social work forward, developing and implementing strategies that, like these, have verifiable results. These master’s students, participants in SSA’s Violence Prevention Program, benefit from the interdisciplinary atmosphere of the University of Chicago and work directly with social service agencies during field placements.

Graduates of the Violence Prevention Program are superbly trained to disseminate and implement the scholarship conceived and tested at SSA, and they often do this without significant compensation. These candidates have the same level of skills and ambitions as students entering the University’s medical, business, and law schools, but they will enter much lower paying careers that demand a combination of altruism, grit, political skill, and intelligence. They are truly the unsung heroes in our society. To encourage talented people to enter the emerging violence prevention field, SSA must help students graduate without heavy academic debt.

Officials increasingly look at hard evidence to inform their decisions, and SSA is in the rare position of generating science that provides proof of what works and what doesn’t. To meet this need, SSA seeks philanthropic support to sustain scientific advances, develop future leaders, and disseminate evidence-based strategies that yield tangible advances in reducing violence.