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Pentagon Offers Help with 'Youth at Risk'

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 15, 2002 – Deployed parents, frequent moves and foreign lands add to typical teen-age turbulence. That can mean trouble for military parents and their commands.

"If teens are hitting the police blotter every Monday morning, the commander needs to know why," said Karen Morgan, a youth specialist who spent 12 years with the Marine Corps' family program before joining the Defense Department two months ago. "If troops are being called back from deployment because of family issues, that detracts from the mission."

Defense officials in the Office of the Assistant Defense Secretary for Military Community and Family Policy aim to help commanders identify what they can do to support youth in their communities. They've contracted for 11 to 15 community assessments by youth development professionals.

The assessment has been designed to help a community see what's happening with youth on and off the installation. The program is aimed at prevention, said Barbara Thompson, another youth specialist who spent 18 years with Air Force youth and family programs before joining the Defense Department two years ago.

"We recognize there are a small number of youth at risk in our military communities and we don't want them to be overlooked," she said. "We also want to identify what is working -- what helps youth make good choices."

Each service has been allocated a number of assessments, which will be done on a first-come, first-served basis at the commander's request.

Jan Witte, DoD's children and youth director and Morgan and Thompson's boss, worked for the Army in Europe for 26 years and has been in her position at DoD for 16 months. She echoed her staff's comments. "Commanders have such a limited amount of resources," she said. "The assessment is a tool to help them set priorities. They can't fix everything immediately; they need to know where to start."

The way the program works, Witte said, commanders request an assessment through their service's youth program coordinator. "A commander may learn in town hall meetings or other venues that the youth on base are bored at home alone before their parents return from work or some have initiated risky behaviors," she said.

"The commander might have reports from school principals, or there may have been incidents on school buses," she noted. "He or she might have gotten minutes from a youth council meeting that possibly said, 'We've noticed youth are smoking more as they hang around the youth center or food court.'"

Once an assessment is approved, a team of five defense contractors request information about the community. About six weeks later, they visit the installation to look at every aspect of community life that presents risks or temptations for youth, as well as the "protective factors" that support healthy youth development. These include strong family communication, programs to recognize youth for their accomplishments and strong mentors.

Drug and alcohol abuse, violent behavior, delinquency, early pregnancies and failure to excel -- these are some of the risks teens face and defense officials want to help youth avoid these behaviors that could negatively impact their future, Witte said. The team then also looks at the programs, the people and other community assets that could help reduce those risks and those that are models that protect youth.

The team would interview the commander, family advocacy representative, housing manager, chaplains, health representatives, school officers, community security police chief, and other key people. The team would also do a series of focus group meetings with community youth program staff, school officials, youth in various age groups, parents, and senior enlisted advisers.

"Another critical component of the assessment is meeting with the installation's key players who impact youth, emphasizing collaboration and joining forces to act on the team's recommendations," Thompson added.

"The idea is to gather information from different sources and validate what's being told to them during this assessment," Witte said. "The team is in the community for a week, so this is just a snapshot in time."

The commander gets a report with the team's observations and recommendations at the end of the team's weeklong visit. "The beauty of it is the one-week time frame," she said, "because so many assessments that we do, it's months before you get a report. This way they can move out, take action and set priorities."

"The report is confidential," Morgan added. "It is the commander's tool. No one else is to see the report unless the commander wants to share."

"And it's not a report card for the commander," Thompson noted. "It's a way for commanders to say, 'I may have concerns about youth at my installation, I may not, but I want to be proactive.' They don't have to worry about anyone inferring they haven't met the needs of their families because they're asking for this team to come in."

When the 11 to 15 assessments are complete, Witte said, the results would give defense officials an overall snapshot of military youth. Defense officials will look at any trends, she said, but they wouldn't be connected with any specific installation, she stressed.

"The point would be to help us decide what issues are affecting our youth," Witte said. "Let's say, smoking is down in the nation, but in the military setting, smoking among youth 12 to 15 is up. We may then take a more directed, defense-wide policy action."

Eventually, Witte added, the Defense Department's youth specialists would like to see the program expand so that all commanders' requests for assessments could be granted.

Thompson and Morgan both noted it would also be beneficial to follow-up to see the impact of the commanders' action on the assessment team's recommendations.

"This is a collaborative effort," Thompson said. "We're saying to commanders, 'If you want us to come onto your installation, there are some commitments on your side of the house. Commanders must commit to providing the logistical and the personnel support to get the assessment going. We also want to know that commanders are going to take this information and do something with it.'"

Having the report end up in a drawer wouldn't do anyone any good, Morgan said. "This is a great way to find out what's the current outlook on youth issues and what we can do to make life better," she said.

For more information on the youth-at-risk assessment program, contact barbara.a.thompson@osd.mil.

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