Researchers Examine Youth Delinquency and Violence in Denver

Photo courtesy of Yang Jun.

Photo courtesy of Yang Jun.

The initial results from a study analyzing youth violence in a small Denver neighborhood finds that the roots of adolescent delinquency may be found in tumultuous, early home-life experiences.

In February, researchers at the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence released findings from the first year of a five-year analysis of Denver’s Montbello neighborhood. With data for more than 2,000 local students culled from surveys, in tandem with almost 700 Montbello resident interviews, researchers determined that two-out-of-five young people in the area had been involved in delinquent activity within a 12-month period, with 6 percent of the youth population saying they had tried drugs before becoming teenagers.

“We know a lot about the causes of youth violence, and we also know a lot about what works to prevent youth violence,” said Dr. Beverly Kingston, project director for the Steps to Success Project Team. “But what we necessarily don’t know a lot about, is how to put it together in one location, one geographic place, and really make a difference.”

An isolated community in the city’s northern recesses, Montbello is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood with fewer than 30,000 inhabitants. African Americans represent slightly more than a quarter of the Montbello population, with whites making up less than 10 percent of the community. According to Kingston, Montbello has the highest percentage of vulnerable children of any neighborhood in Denver.

Montbello citizens were asked about the youth issues they felt most concerned about, as well as civic areas they believe the community could improve upon. These risk and protective factors were then ranked by researchers, in accordance to how important residents considered them.

“The community looked very closely [at] five primary risk factors,” Kingston said. “So they prioritized risk factors to work on that might not have been the highest level in terms of rates in their community, but they were strong predictors of violence based on previous studies.”

Montbello citizens listed the following as the five greatest risk factors facing their neighborhood; early and persistent problem behavior, family management problems, associations with delinquent peers, exposure to violence and lack of commitment to education.

According to respondents, young children -- between the ages of 6 and 11 -- engaging in delinquent behavior posed one of the biggest threats to the community. “If young people are using drugs and alcohol or engaging in major problem behavior when they are that age, that can lead to future violence,” Kingston said. While children of the like did not represent a very large percentage of the community, she said that it was still an issue that Montbello residents nonetheless wanted to address and remedy.

Approximately 23 percent of the community’s 10- and 11- year olds were found to have engaged in delinquency or violence -- a percentage that, despite being relatively low, Kingston considered “troubling” due to the children’s extremely young ages.

Montbello residents also felt that poor family management and domestic conflicts were pressing local concerns. “The community really wanted to address that family context and what they want to see is less conflict in families,” Kingston said. “Yelling, physical violence, [they] want to see that reduced.”

Members of the community, she added, saw inconsistent discipline, as a major catalyst for youth misbehavior. “One day, they are disciplined for coming later than their bedtime for their curfew, and another time, they’re not,” Kingston explained. “Or maybe, the mom in the family says ‘you can do this,’ but the dad says ‘you can’t do that.’”

Montbello residents consider negative peer influences to present challenges to the community, with many stating they would like to see a reduction in the number of local youth with weak social ties.

A lack of pro-social acquaintances during adolescence, Kingston said, is often a pathway to future violence. “They are not connected in school, they don’t have peers their age and those kids are especially susceptible to a delinquent peer group,” she added.

Regarding possible deterrents to youth delinquency, Montbello residents stressed two factors: religiosity and recognition of positive social behaviors by family, school and community members.

For most of the protective factor categories, Kingston said respondents scored more than 80 percent -- meaning that the community members thought that such elements as family attachment and school-centered pro-social opportunities already had strong presences in the neighborhood.

Due to fairly low youth community numbers, Montbello residents prioritized “religiosity” as the utmost civic area they wanted to promote within the neighborhood.

“The religiosity scale was pretty low,” Kingston said. “Forty-seven percent of the youth surveyed in the community agreed that those religiosity measures were important to them.”

Citing a 2003 study, she said that there is some evidence that regular religious service attendance could lower the likelihood of young people engaging in problem behaviors.

“If you increase religiosity among a sample of already delinquent kids,” Kingston stated,  “they will be less likely to be delinquent when they get older.”

With the community risk and protective factors taken into consideration, the Steps to Success Project will now begin working on a Community Action Plan. Once implemented, the project seeks to reduce the total youth violence levels in the community by 10 percent over the next three years.

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