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It costs Connecticut nearly $110,700 per year to maintain each of the 180 beds in the Connecticut Youth Detainee Program. On average, about 140 youths spend the night in the program's three detention centers. Their average stay is about 15 days.

When the state factors in the costs of arresting, detaining, supervising and educating the program's youths, the costs are nearly $20 million-and, to make matters worse, nearly one-third of the detainees end up back in the juvenile justice system, says John Chapman, PsyD, clinical coordinator for the Connecticut Court Support Services Division.

It's a pattern Yale University psychologist Elena Grigorenko, PhD, and her colleagues hope to help change. She and Chapman suspect that much of the reason so many young offenders end up back in the system is that it's not equipped to teach social problem-solving skills that help teens think through possible solutions to their interpersonal problems and the consequences of their actions.

To test their theory, they are using a $20,000 American Psychological Foundation (APF) grant to introduce a behavioral intervention that teaches detainees social problem-solving skills during their time in the system. Grigorenko's research team aims to measure whether the intervention can help the system's young offenders heed and curb their aggressive and violent tendencies.

"We're hoping that we can provide [the program] with a serious and fundamental system upgrade," she says.

Reshaping the system

With the behavioral intervention the researchers use, Social Problem-Solving Training (SPST), a therapist conducts 10 one-hour sessions with groups of six to eight teens. The teens learn problem-solving and social skills by role-playing. For instance, in one acted-out scenario, two teens peacefully resolve a situation in which one borrowed another's CD and never returned it. Working with therapists, the youths also logically think through their own decision-making and attempt to disengage from their anger and emotions.

Chapman suggests that by developing the detainees' social skills, the center will better prepare them for interacting with other teens in school.

Grigorenko and her colleagues are gauging these sessions' effectiveness by assigning 240 detainees to participate in one of two conditions: the SPST model or a nonspecific series of discussions between the detainee and social workers and corrections officers. They also are collecting several biological indicators of stress-response system differences to investigate the association between the detainees' stress responses and SPST outcomes. The stress-response system is critical in setting acute and chronic levels of arousal and provides much of the functional neuroanatomy of fear, anxiety and aggression, explains Grigorenko.

"Better understanding of the individual differences in response to intervention will help increase the effectiveness of the behavioral interventions," she says.

When the researchers finish their data collection at the end of this month, they will compare short- and long-term effects in detainees who experienced and did not experience SPST. They will compare those outcomes while taking into account the detainees' previous developmental, psychiatric and criminal history, as well as psychological variables, such as indicators of depression, anxiety and stress, as well as their stress-response system's biological characteristics.

Helping society

Grigorenko has long been interested in the biological underpinnings of people's behavior. She's been drawn to violence-prevention research not only as a psychologist, but also as a concerned citizen who once was robbed at gunpoint by troubled teenagers.

"Fundamentally, I want to help them and I want to help us as a society," she says. The system she aims to see put in place would reduce the number of repeat offenders while saving taxpayers money and resources-"a win, win," she says.

The broad-based, practical implications of her study was one of the reasons that her study received the APF Programs on Violence Prevention and Intervention Grant.

"[The study] combines real experimentation with theory in a meaningful and thoughtful way," says psychologist Edith Grotberg, PhD, who served on APF's selection committee. "It's focused on changing behavior in a constructive and powerful way."

Grigorenko's aims are also in line with APF's mission to promote psychology and extend its benefits to the public, says APF Executive Director Elisabeth Straus.

"Applying psychological research to a cause like violence prevention is one of the most important things we do," says Straus.

Further Reading

For more information about the Programs on Violence Prevention and Intervention Grant, visit www.apa.org/apf.