• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 11th May, 2012

The man who is making a difference

In the 1970s there were a number of key catalysts that launched Richard Catalano into a career in prevention science. At that time he was working in regional development and was hired by Joe Weis - leading criminologist - to help review for the National Institute of Mental Health what was known about the causes and correlates of drug abuse and delinquency. Catalano reflects that “the findings of these early reviews were sobering; very little was known about the precursors of drug abuse and delinquency and, unsurprisingly, no effective prevention interventions could be found.” This message was then brought home to him when drug use was implicated in the tragic death of someone he knew. It was the collision of these experiences that made him determined to understand what leads young people down a path of drug abuse and delinquency and to understand what can be done about it. Around this time, Catalano also met David Hawkins - another giant in world of prevention science - someone with whom he would go on to work with for the next three decades. Hawkins, he says, is “an out-and-out genius and a truly inspirational thinker.” He goes on: “He initially hired me to work with him as co-investigator evaluating the effectiveness of a series of drug-use and delinquency treatment interventions situated in residential and juvenile corrections institutions.” Whilst these interventions showed promise, Catalano and Hawkins were both convinced that a lot more could be done to prevent drug-use and delinquency occuring in the first place, before it exacted its toll on young people’s social development, education and subsequent employment. Catalano says: “We wanted to shift services from rehabilitation to habilitation; rather than fixing established problems we wanted to equip children with the skills and resources so that they don’t engage in drugs and delinquency behavior in the first place, and to help create family, school and community environments that support this.” It was these fundamental principles, developed by Catalano and Hawkins within weeks of working together, that formed the basis of the influential Social Development Model – a framework for understanding and promoting children’s healthy social and behavioral development. “In the early days,” recounts Catalano, “it was a hypothesis: we thought that there were a number of critical factors that protect children from risks leading to drug abuse and delinquency. We thought that bonding to school, pro-social family members and peers, and clear standards and norms of behavior were critical, and that children need to be given the opportunities, skills and recognition to develop these.” But in the mid-to-late 1970s, it was just that - an informed hypothesis. Catalano had already been confronted with the dearth of quality information on the risk and protective factors associated with drug abuse and delinquency. “The data that did exist was largely from cross-sectional studies - which in some ways was great,” he says, “but it didn’t allow scientists to understand how potential risk or protective factors influence children’s development over time.” What they needed was robust longitudinal data to test the theory. So it was during the 1980s that both Catalano and Hawkins were engaged in fiery debates with fellow academics, policy makers and those holding the Federal purse-strings, arguing for investment into longitudinal studies designed to understand the causes and consequences of drug abuse and delinquency. In 1981 a number of Federal agencies invested in a longitudinal study designed by Catalano and Hawkins to test the theory underlying the Social Development Model. This continuing study - the Seattle Social Development Project - has followed a cohort of over 800 children for 30 years. The information gained provided the empirical meat to the hypothetical bones of the Social Development Model. But as Catalano describes, it was not enough merely to understand the causes and consequences of drug abuse and delinquency. “We wanted to intervene and prevent problems occurring in the first place,” he explains, “and to do this, it was not enough to just work with children, schools, communities or families - we needed to intervene at all of these levels.” Catalano and colleagues, therefore, used principles of the Social Development Model to inform the development of a series of family, school and community-based interventions, which were received by some of the children in the SSDP cohort. The positive impacts of these interventions are still observable in the lives of these children almost 30 years later. These interventions would be subsequently refined and be known as the Raising Healthy Children intervention. “The next logical step,” says Catalano, “was to create a vehicle to deliver evidence-based interventions to families, schools and communities.” The product of this effort is Communities that Care - the only operating system proven to work by randomized control trial to create a community effort to implement evidence-based programs targeted at the needs of local children. So what’s next? “There are still so many things I want to do” says Catalano, “but the most pressing is to embed the principles and operating systems of prevention so that evidence-based interventions may be truly sustainable and taken to scale.”To this end, Catalano and his team have formed a partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Social Research Unit at Dartington, UK, and a wider team of leading US scientists to create a hybrid operating system to be embedded with public children’s service systems. “This,” says Catalano, “is where the future lies and I can’t wait to see it.” References: www.sdrg.org

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