Saturday, March 6, 2004

Some old-fashioned guidelines still prevail: Church attendance, family discipline and meaningful school involvement lessen violence among aggressive children in tough neighborhoods, according to a study released yesterday by the University of Washington.

Church, family and school — called “protective factors” by the researchers — proved a remarkable and reassuring panacea to brutal street behavior. The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an agency within the National Institute of Health.

The study found that just 11 percent of black teenagers became violent by the time they were 18 if their parents practiced such “good family-management skills as actively providing supervision, setting clear rules and expectations for behavior and reinforcing good work habits.”

Among parents who did not rule the roost, 49 percent of the teens later became violent.

“The study shows that normative things can have a profound impact on kids at risk for violence. The findings about the importance of attending religious services says much about values and making positive connections in a community setting,” said Todd Herrenkohl of the university’s school of social work yesterday.

“Clearly there was a dramatic difference in the rate of violence when good family management was present,” he added.

The researchers tracked 154 children in Seattle deemed “highly aggressive” by the local school system. The group was predominantly male (64 percent); 49 percent were black and 34 percent were white. The remaining 17 percent were of another race or ethnicity, none large enough to draw any valid statistical conclusions.

The researchers analyzed white youth to find that among 15-year-olds from structured homes, 30 percent later became violent, while the rate was 32 percent for those from homes with “poor family-management skills.”

Teenagers in the study were asked to fill out questionnaires when they turned 15, and again three years later, chronicling “physical violence, ranging from picking a fight to hitting a parent or beating someone so badly that the victim required medical attention,” the study noted.

Overall, 35 percent of the 154 adolescents had engaged in violent behavior by the time they reached age 18.

The study also found that children who lived in “disorganized neighborhoods” rife with crime, run-down housing, poverty, antisocial behavior and gangs were 21/2 times more likely to become violent as adults.

Then there’s the flip side: the neighborhood church, the caring parent, the family dinner table.

“Protective factors — such as feeling attached to community and family and high academic achievement — can foster pro-social and healthy behaviors,” Mr. Herrenkohl said.

Society shouldn’t give up, either, he believes.

“It is never too late to intervene and it is a mistake to assume that all early behavior problems will lead to later and more serious antisocial behavior,” Mr. Herrenkohl said.

The palliative effect of church attendance and other factors on violent teens has come into sharper focus in recent years.

University of Pennsylvania criminologist Byron Johnson has called it the “forgotten faith factor” in his own research.

Mr. Johnson analyzed data from an ongoing “National Youth Survey” based at the University of Colorado to determine that vandalism, assaults and other crimes in troubled black neighborhoods fell by more than 22 percent when young residents regularly went to church services.

Those neighborhood churches, Mr. Johnson believes, should no longer be considered “invisible institutions by criminologists” and has called for sociologists to conduct more substantive research in the preventative role of churches.

He also analyzed interviews from 2,358 young black men from inner-city neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

“Results from a series of multilevel analyses indicate that church attendance (the frequency of attending religious services) has significant inverse effects on nondrug illegal activities, drug use, and drug selling among disadvantaged youths,” he wrote in a treatise in Justice Quarterly.

“Religious salience (the perceived importance of religion in one’s life), however, is not significantly linked to reductions in juvenile delinquency,” Mr. Johnson noted.

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