The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

System of Support With research in hand, Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith is leading the field of violence prevention by helping families and children.

The summer of 2012 roiled Chicago with record-breaking heat (the most consecutive days of temperatures above 100 in 60 years) and heart-breaking violence (a 31 percent increase in murders). City and county officials successfully prevented the heat wave from becoming a devastating public health crisis by opening cooling centers and encouraging well-being checks on the elderly and infirm.

For two decades, Deborah Gorman-Smith has promoted strategies that demonstrate the benefits of working with at-risk children and their families before they become ensnared in the grip of gangs and violence. Principal investigator and director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, Gorman-Smith and the center moved to SSA in the fall [of 2012]. Her work is devoted to studying and stemming the underlying causes of youth violence through evidence-based, collaborative interventions that focus on families and communities.

By Charles Whitaker

Efforts to curb the epidemic of violence were far less successful. The victim count rose throughout the summer and into the fall. During the week of August 23, 82 people were shot or killed; 24 more shootings were reported over the Labor Day weekend.

As the grim statistics spiked, Deborah Gorman-Smith’s phone began to ring.

Gorman-Smith, who joined the faculty of SSA as a professor this fall [2012], is principal investigator and director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (CCYVP). The center—and her career—is devoted to studying and stemming the underlying causes of youth violence through evidence-based, collaborative interventions that focus on families and communities, linking them with schools, law enforcement officials, social service agencies and policy makers. For two decades, Gorman-Smith has promoted strategies that demonstrate the benefits of working with at-risk children and their families before they become ensnared in the grip of gangs and violence. She has held prestigious fellowships with the likes of the William T. Grant Foundation and procured millions of dollars in grants from the National Institute for Justice, the National Institute for Drug Abuse, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and the Centers for Disease Control.

Despite the accolades, Gorman-Smith’s long-range preventive approach to addressing violence often stands in stark contrast to law enforcement’s traditional tactics. But with public pressure and the body count mounting in Chicago, Gorman-Smith has noticed a decided shift in the official position.

“At the city and county level, I’ve been in more conversations about [violence] prevention than I’ve been in or heard in the past 20 years,” she says. “I think there’s a recognition that while we have to address the violence that is right in front of us right now, we have to also start thinking about a long-term strategy. We have to start thinking about getting in and working with these kids before they get involved in violence.”        

The CCYVP staff

The CCYVP staff: Standing (from left), Molly Coeling, Franklin Cosey-Gay, David Henry, John Halloran, Pajarita Charles and Darryl Gras-Partyka. Seated, Michael Schoeny and Deborah Gorman-Smith

The Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, which also took up residence in SSA in August, employs a multidisciplinary approach to examining and combating youth violence in poor, inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago, bringing together researchers, educators, community members and policymakers to implement and assess a comprehensive set of violence-prevention programs.

Founded in 2005 and moved to the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall in 2009, CCYVP is one of six National Academic Centers of Excellence currently funded by the Centers for Disease Control to research youth violence prevention programs that collect and analyze data and foster relationships within communities. Rigorous evaluation is one of the requirements for CDC funding, and it is a hallmark of the center and Gorman-Smith’s work.

A nationally recognized authority on youth violence prevention (she is [now the past] president of the Society for Prevention Research and a senior research fellow for the Coalition of Evidence-based Policy), Gorman-Smith preaches the gospel of using scientific methods—randomized trials, ongoing data analysis—to determine the efficacy of programs designed to foster social change.

“A lot of the work I do at the federal level is to encourage rigorous evaluation and social policy that is based on what we know from research,” she says. “We have to continue to build on the evidence base if we want to be effective in our policy decisions, otherwise we spend billions and billions of dollars on programs that are ineffective, or worse do harm, and look around 30 years later and find that we’re no better off.”

Much of the work of Gorman-Smith, the staff of five full-time researchers at CCYVP and its co-investigators Mike Schoeny and David Henry, who is a professor at the School of Public Health at UIC, is aimed at finding out if the evidence supports that family-based programs can bring about social change that prevents violence. While Gorman-Smith acknowledges that economic inequality is at the heart of much of what plagues urban neighborhoods, she feels strongly that a focus on providing support for poor families, while not a panacea, could help steer some children away from the path of violence.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” she says, “but if we can help families manage in the context that they’re in—provide support for parenting, connect them to services and other families, help them as they’re trying to navigate the school system, and at the same time help raise the quality of those schools—then that’s the closest thing to any kind of silver bullet we have.”

A prime example of CCYVP’s work is its Schools and Families Educating Children (SAFE Children) program, a preventive intervention that targets first-graders and their families. The 15 week program brings together four to six families weekly with a focus on parent and child engagement with school, promoting self-control and social competence in the child, reducing aggression, and improving parenting and family function.

The first evaluation of the SAFE Children program implemented with children and families on the West and South sides of Chicago has found long-term and positive effects in the academic performance and behavior of its young participants and their families. For example, those participating in the intervention were nearly twice as likely as controls to be on track for graduation when entering high school (based on CPS administrative records). Intervention youth had fewer reports of violence while in high school and fewer sexual partners.

The objective of SAFE Children is not only to help parents usher their young children off to a good start in school—which is one of the keys to preventing violence, Gorman-Smith’s research suggests—but also to break down the social isolation many of these families experience. “We know that in a lot of these neighborhoods parents are challenged by the high levels of violence and by the sense that they’re out there alone,” says Franklin Cosey-Gay, project coordinator for CCYVP. “Even though they may be in communities with a lot of people who live very close together, they still don’t have the networks of friends and family or the structural supports that many families have in middle-class neighborhoods. We try to help them develop those.”

Community-based mental health staff help the families learn techniques that will help break the cycle of neighborhood violence. But mostly the families help each other. They share ideas and feelings about things like discipline and school expectations. They also discover how to connect and communicate with school officials and other community resources. The children’s progress (as well as that of their families) is scrupulously monitored and compared with the progress of their non-participating classmates from the same neighborhood, who serve as a randomly assigned control group.

Initially, CCYVP staff ran the SAFE Children program themselves, as an efficacy trial to see if the intervention had an effect. Over the last few years, they’ve done effectiveness trials, where community-based mental health agencies worked with elementary schools to operate the program—allowing CCYVP to measure how well the program works when it’s in “real world” conditions. Starting this winter, they’re launching a version at six schools where the school social worker or other in-school personnel will lead the meetings.

Read updates about the SAFE program on the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (CCYVP) website.

“We’ve also heard from some families and schools that they believe a shorter version of the program, targeting the transition to school for younger kids, would be valuable, especially in high-risk communities, so we’ve started a pilot of SPARK [Students and Parents Achieving Readiness for Kindergarten],” Gorman-Smith says. Testing now at the McCormick Tribune YMCA in Humboldt Park, SPARK will partner with Head Start programs to give families the kind of support through the transition from Head Start to school that SAFE Children provides—another opportunity for CCYVP to measure how this kind of intervention impacts youth violence.

Much of CCYVP’s work is in partnership with community-based organizations that are in the field. For example, the center works with CeaseFire, a program that uses a combination of research-based public health and community outreach methods in several Chicago neighborhoods to prevent violence, to improve their effectiveness with better information.

Many people are familiar with the hands-on approach of the program’s street-level mediators from The Interrupters, the recent documentary by filmmaker Steve James and author Alex Kotlowitz. The center’s work with CeaseFire, however, is a data-driven approach: CCYVP has helped with analysis that enables the City of Chicago and CeaseFire to keep track of where the violence hotspots are, where to send its outreach workers and where the organization’s work is yielding the best results.

“[CCYVP’s] work has really challenged us to be more strategic in our thinking about what we do and where we do it,” says Candice Kane, chief operating officer of CeaseFire. “It’s another mechanism for us to figure out who we can and should be engaging with.”

Stephen Vick, A.M. ’99

Staff at the CCYVP launch a new pilot program, Students and Parents Achieving Readiness for Kindergarten (SPARK), with families in Humboldt Park at the McCormick Tribune YMCA and the facility’s staff and [former] executive director, Stephen Vick, AM ’99.

Much of the research undergirding the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention’s work derives from an ongoing longitudinal study Gorman-Smith is engaged in with her longtime collaborator Patrick Tolan, now a professor of education and psychiatry at the University of Virginia, and the director of Youth-Nex, The Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.

The project, which was born when Gorman-Smith was a newly minted Ph.D. and Tolan had just joined the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Juvenile Research as an associate professor, has traced the trajectory of young men growing up in inner-city Chicago for more than 20 years. “It is the first attempt to look at multiple levels of influence—from the neighborhood down to individual characteristics—on how kids succeed in high-risk communities or whether they succumb to the numerous threats in their lives,” Tolan says.

The study has produced more than two dozen academic papers on risk and protective factors for youth violence, education, substance use, dating violence and more. The research has shown that an emotional connection with families can help limit risk for serious and violent behavior, and that neighborhood social organization and networks can buffer the effect of poor parenting practices. The research continues. Now that some of the boys are fathers themselves, for instance, Gorman-Smith and Tolan are finding that with these young men, the typical stereotypes of young, poor fathers who aren’t involved with their children’s lives are often not true.

For Gorman-Smith, the study helped fuel what has become her career-long commitment to finding effective ways to make a difference in the lives of children and families trapped in neighborhoods where resources are scarce and violence is plentiful. That commitment has deep personal ties as well-rooted in Gorman-Smith’s own working-class background and a desire to pay forward the debt she owes to her parents for the sacrifices that enabled her to embark on a career in the academy.

Gorman-Smith was born in Argo, Illinois, a blue-collar community (now subsumed in the village of Summit) just outside the southwest edge of Chicago. Her mother, Dorothy, drove a school bus. Her father, Earl, was a diesel mechanic. But Dorothy was a voracious reader who believed in the power of education to change lives and wanted her three daughters to have the best public education available. So when Deborah was three, Dorothy moved the family to the burgeoning suburb of Orland Park, which was little more than cornfields then, for better schools and opportunities. “I just always felt like you needed that education to do things,” Dorothy recalls, “and I wanted them to have a better education than I thought they could get in Argo.”

Deborah, the oldest of the Gorman girls, really took to the change. She was always a good student (“She knew how to read before she went to kindergarten,” her mother says) and excelled academically all the way through high school. Her love of school convinced her family that she was destined for a career as an elementary or high school teacher, and she majored in special education at Northern Illinois University, which she attended on scholarship.

But during her senior year, Gorman-Smith started reading academic papers and became hooked on the idea of a career in scholarship. “I was still interested in education, but I decided that I wanted to do research for a living,” she says. She secured a position as a research assistant with one of her professors in the school of education, who was also a psychologist. That opportunity tilted her in the direction of educational psychology.

While working on her doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago and training at the Institute for Juvenile Research, she became increasingly interested in navigating high-risk neighborhoods and the effects that those noxious environments had on kids’ development. “I had clients who had all kinds of symptoms as a result of being exposed early to chronic and constant violence,” she says. “They were talking about sleeping in their bathtubs to avoid being shot at night and being worried about going to and from school. At school they were anxious because they were worried about their mom who was at home and who wasn’t safe.”

Hearing those stories made her hark back to her own childhood and how different her life might have been had her mother not made the decision to leave Argo. “Knowing how that change—just growing up in a different town—had such a significant impact on my life, I mean it changed the course of my life in fundamental ways, really drew me to this work on the interaction of family and neighborhood context and its effects on development.”

At the time she was completing her training, Patrick Tolan was looking for a project director to help him with his study of seventh-grade boys from high-risk neighborhoods in Chicago. Two other finishing graduate students were candidates for the job and came to him highly recommended. But while their formal credentials were slightly stronger than Gorman-Smith’s, from the moment he interviewed her, he knew she was the right person for the job.

“The other two just didn’t have what Deborah had, and that was this ability to project that she would do everything in her power to make sure that this very careful and demanding scientific job was going to be done right,” Tolan says. “I often tell people that one of the smartest things I ever did was hire Deborah Gorman-Smith. She does very important work that is driven by strong scientific interest and great interest in making a difference. And her influence on the field and policy is increasing over time.”

What impresses colleagues about Gorman-Smith is that despite fealty for scientific method and theory, she remains grounded and in touch with the practical realities that can make implementing the most thoroughly researched program difficult. “She knows that theory is important,” says Franklin Cosey-Gay, “but she has the experience in the field to know that in real life, families don’t always do what the theory says they’re supposed to do. That’s made her a great mentor to me. She understands the challenges and constraints some families face.”

These days, Gorman-Smith laments the fact that with her duties as the center’s director, she’s rarely actually in the field implementing programs. When she’s not engaged at work, she also spends a considerable amount of time with her husband of 27 years, Gary, the CFO of Vi Senior Living, a developer of high-end retirement communities, cheering on their 13-year-old twins, Emma and Scott, who are talented athletes (softball and swimming for Emma and football and baseball for Scott).

She says she’s looking forward to the slight change of pace represented by joining the faculty at SSA. In the fall, she taught family therapy and will teach prevention science in the winter, and she says she liked the idea of getting back in the classroom (she taught for 20 years in the medical school at UIC), training the next generation of scholars and practitioners to deliver these evidence-based interventions and to think about the consequences of their practice and research.

“I want students to think critically,” she says. “I want them to understand the responsibilities that come with working with people. While our goal is to help decrease risk, we have a mountain of evidence around interventions and approaches that are not effective. That research cannot be ignored just because we like or want a particular intervention to be helpful. I want [students] to ask questions and conduct work that pushes the field forward, whatever their field is.”

And she is as excited about the opportunity to mentor junior faculty and engage with colleagues around the issues of family-focused violence programs. For years she has marveled at the impact SSA seems to have on social services in Chicago. “Every time I would go into a school or to a community agency, I would end up in a conversation with someone who was an SSA alum,” she says. “I was beginning to think, wow, these people run the city.

“I get very excited when I think about the opportunity I’ll have to work with these amazing people,” she says. “They’re really an incredible group, doing important work. I like the idea of being a part of that community. And I like the idea of helping to train a workforce that’s interested in going out and making a difference.”