Falk research team partners with Onondaga County to help reduce adolescent involvement in juvenile justice system

Article by George Bain

A Falk College research team is helping Onondaga County identify risk factors that indicate when children and youth will cross over from the child welfare system into the juvenile justice system. The team includes CFS associate professor, Matthew Mulvaney, the project director; Rachel Razza, assistant professor of child and family studies; Nancy Mudrick, professor of social work; Keith Alford, associate professor of social work, and; Carrie Jefferson Smith, director and associate professor of social work. All bring diverse perspectives and areas of expertise to the project. Suzanne Soule, Falk College computer consultant, is developing the database.

Kimberly Raymond, a doctoral student in child and family studies, directs the research at the OnCare site to integrate the information from the various agencies. “She spent a lot of time looking to see what was available and how we can best approach this,” says Mulvaney.

The researchers will integrate data from all agencies involved in the Onondaga County System of Care (OnCare) into a single database. The researchers’ data analysis will help the county improve its services to children, youth, and families.

“This is an opportunity for us to use our research skills in a way that engages with the community and potentially makes a difference,” says Mulvaney. “We want to identify the adolescents before they get involved with the system.”

The effort is part of a national initiative to reduce crossover involvement of children and families receiving mental health services who enter the juvenile justice system, Mulvaney says. OnCare – a federally funded community initiative developing partnerships among various social service agencies serving children and youth to age 21 – contacted Syracuse University seeking research assistance to combine all data systems and identify families at risk. The federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration covers the Falk team’s participation.

“The primary purpose is to utilize data that exists across systems and across agencies,” says Mulvaney. “We are basically dealing with the task of taking information that exists in client records, which originally didn’t have a research purpose, and identifying how we might be able to compile that data into a meaningful dataset and proceed with analyses.”

The project is in its early stages of gathering data from all agencies involved in OnCare. The county received a six-year federal grant in 2009 to coordinate services provided by the departments of mental health, social services, and probation. The researchers’ current database includes 588 families, Mulvaney says.

OnCare’s initial request was broad, he continues. The Falk team came up with the specific research approach. “Our team felt like this is something that is important and that we could bring our expertise to bear on this issue,” says Mulvaney, adding the topic is closely related to their concentrations in child and family studies and social work.

The county’s human service agencies are reorganizing, says OnCare’s director, Linda Lopez. “Many of the children and families are served by more than one component of the service system and we currently have no mechanisms to identify those children so that we can provide a more intensive, coordinated response,” she says.

That’s where the Falk team’s work will pay off.

“The research shows that there is a much higher risk if the family is already receiving mental health services, and we want to identify the specific processes that might be responsible for it,” Mulvaney says.

“This is definitely Scholarship in Action.”