Tornadoes, Guns, and Cars: How Should a Mom Allocate Her Worry?

The heartbreaking deaths of young children from the devastating tornado in Oklahoma layer another scar over the one left on our national consciousness from the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. For me, and I’m sure many parents and caregivers, these stories make lasting imprints. These images flash through my mind as I look at my children and how vulnerable they are—and I wonder where my worry is best focused and whether there is anything I could do to protect them anyway.


Although death of a child is rare (.07% from ages 0 to 19), at least one-third of those deaths are from what are called “external” incidents, i.e., not diseases or other medical conditions; these are deaths that potentially can be prevented.

Three of the biggest causes of death for these preventable events across our children’s lives (to age 19) are motor vehicles accidents (mostly in teenage years from inexperienced drivers), homicide (primarily in infant and teenage years), and suffocation (nearly always infants).

So, what is the likelihood of these two recent horrible events in Oklahoma and Sandy Hook? If we use past data to predict the future, the number of children who were victims of tornadoes or other cataclysmic storms was rare, about one and a half out of 10 million. Just for comparison, that rate is about half the number of children who die from being bitten or struck by mammals, including dogs (3 out of 10 million).  In any case, to date, these incidents are still rare, even in tornado-belt states.

Sandy Hook is a different story. Homicide is the second most common cause of external deaths among children, and about two-thirds of those deaths are from guns, as in the case of Sandy Hook. Most of the deaths occur in teenage years, when the impulsive and risk-taking teenage brain interacts with highly effective guns. What would have gone down as a bad decision becomes a deadly one. In fact, if we add the number of children who used a gun to commit suicide and the number of purely accidental gun deaths, one out of every six of the accidental deaths of childhood is from guns. In other words, a child dying from a bullet is more common that we want to acknowledge.

While I am inescapably overwhelmed by witnessing these heart-wrenching events, we owe it to all the lives lost—including the heroes who died protecting our children—to ask questions, learn, and focus our energies to begin where most children are unnecessarily lost: primarily teen-related motor vehicle accidents, gun-related homicide, and infant-related suffocation. If parents come together and focus together, we can achieve lasting change—and the stories we will carry with us will be success stories.

Natalia Pane, is Vice President of Research Operations, and her new book, The Worry ClockTM: How to Worry Smarter about the Real Dangers to Your Child, is due out in June.



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How Family Life Differs in Central and South America

As a region, Central and South America have many countries with lower marriage and higher cohabitation and non-marital childbearing rates than just about any other region in the world–including Europe and North America. These are just a few of the findings highlighted earlier this month at events held in Lima and Piura, Peru, to mark the  international release of Child Trends’ World Family Map:  Mapping Family Change and Child Well-being Outcomes.


The report, now available in Spanish, is generating interest in the research, policy and media arenas in Peru, where the family as a social institution is highly valued.  Colleagues from the Institute of Family Sciences at the University of Piura organized two days of meetings with university professors from Lima and Piura, as well as a press conference with outside experts, journalists and policymakers. Child Trends had the opportunity to participate in these meetings, and presented results from the report’s essay on children’s living arrangements and educational outcomes. During the meetings, attendees expressed concern about a dramatic drop in fertility rates in Peru and Latin America, as well as the high rates of births to unmarried couples and how this trend may affect child well-being in the future.

Among the nine Central and South American countries included in the report, (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru), there are substantial proportions of children being raised by single parents, more so than in any other region, with moderate levels of extended families. Some of the other report findings from the region include:

  • Well over half of children in this region were born to unmarried mothers, with Columbia registering the highest level of all countries (85 percent);
  • The percent of children living with single parents ranged from 16 percent in Bolivia to 35 percent in Columbia;
  • At least 40 percent of children were living with extended family members;
  • Less than 40 percent of adults were married;
  • Between 12 (Chile) and 39 percent (Columbia) of adults aged 18-49 lived in cohabiting unions.

The report also examined indicators of family economics, processes, and culture in this region:

  • Absolute poverty[1] ranged from one percent of the population in Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica to 16 percent in Columbia and Nicaragua;
  • Undernourishment rates in the region are second only to Africa, while parental education is at moderate levels and parental employment levels varied widely;
  • Adults in this region report that family satisfaction and family trust are high, and that there are rarely disagreements over housework;
  • Students report the highest levels of communication on political and social issues in the world, and that their families are regularly eating meals together;
  • A high percentage of adults in this region believe that children are happier when they grow up with both a father and a mother, even though many children in Central and South America are raised outside of a two-parent home;
  • Support for working mothers and voluntary single parenthood is also high.

The meetings and discussions that took place in Peru underscored several common challenges and changes related to the family that many countries are facing, but also highlighted the value of understanding the specific economic, social and political contexts that operate in Peru, as well as every other country, to uniquely shape the experiences of children and families.

Mindy E. Scott, Senior Research Scientist

Laura Lippman, Senior Program Area Director

[1]The absolute poverty indicator captures the living conditions in one country, compared with others, by using an international poverty line and determining the percentage of the population living below that line. The international poverty line that we used in this report is set by the World Bank at 1.25 U.S. dollars a day.

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In Celebration of Moms

It is a long standing tradition for mothers to worry about their children. When I was young, my mother insisted I call her at every bus transfer on my way home from school. My grandmother tells stories of her fears of pneumonia plaguing her family. Mother’s Day was, in fact, originally founded by concerned mothers, as an outcry against the Civil War.

“Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience. … In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed …to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

With our country having just been involved in two wars, many mothers today share these concerns. Additionally, they are faced with different concerns: childhood obesity, acts of random violence, teen pregnancy, the implicit effects of income on our children’s ability to excel in school, figuring out the perfect amount of “screen time,” and the list goes on. This Mother’s Day, I think we are overdue for a research-based celebration of mothers and all they do, in little and big ways, to nurture and promote their children’s well-being.     

Praise and Positive Communication

Mothers aren’t always given a pat on the back for their emphatic responses to macaroni necklaces- but they should be. Positive reinforcement and communication is associated with children’s well-being and positive development (Carlson 1992). The majority of adolescents have mothers who usually or always praise them for doing well.  Praise and communication fosters a positive and enriching family environment which can help prevent behavior problems in youth, including delinquent behaviors (Cowen 1988). The next time you hear a mom saying “great job!” as she ogles a Rorschach finger painting, be sure to tell her the same.

Household Routine

Rushing to get children to school and adults to work while catching the bus or avoiding traffic can seem a bit chaotic, but daily family routines are linked to multiple child outcomes, including academic achievement, self-esteem, and behavioral and emotional adjustment (Maccoby 1992). Most teenagers live in households where routine household tasks are performed at least five days a week and 72 percent of adolescents eat dinner with their families at least five days a week (Child Trends Brief on Family Strengths). While making dinner for the family may seem anything but extraordinary to the broccoli-loathing child archetype, one study found that “…eating meals as a family was the most important predictor of adolescent flourishing.”  

Time Spent TImageogether

Spending time together does not have to be complicated to bring families closer and can benefit a child’s development. Moms who take their children with them to the New York City Ballet or sit down to watch Glee receive similar benefits when they discuss the experience together. It can be hard to maintain family dialogue in a world of smart phones, social media, and compounding responsibilities but mothers manage to make it work. Reading out loud is widely regarded as the most important activity leading to language acquisition. The 50th read through The Very Hungry Caterpillar may not be the glue holding a family together, but it certainly keeps them close.  

Be sure to thank the special women in your life this Mother’s Day for “promoting the great and general interests of peace” in yours.

Shelby Hickman,  Senior Research Assistant


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What We Don’t Know about Evidence-based Programs

In recent years both government and private funders have called for greater use of evidence-based programs and practices to serve children and youth. This is generally a good thing. We should fund programs that have at least some potential to improve the lives of children and youth. The good news is that there is a significant—and growing–number of programs with demonstrated positive outcomes. For example, Child Trends maintains a “What Works” database of more than 600 experimentally evaluated programs, which includes programs that have demonstrated positive, mixed, and negative impacts on children’s and youth’s outcomes.


The bad news is that it is far from clear what distinguishes effective from ineffective programs. In other words, we don’t know much about why programs work or don’t. In 2007, the late Douglas Kirby wrote Emerging Answers:  Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. In this update from his 1997 report, he emphasized how much the number of rigorous impact studies had increased over ten years.  However, throughout the report he noted how little we know about program implementation. Indeed, one of Kirby’s recommendations for the field is: “Provide much more complete program descriptions in published articles, as well as more informative process evaluations, to help reviewers ascertain why some programs were effective and others were not.”

Unfortunately, although progress continues to be made in terms of impact studies, relatively little progress has been made in studying program implementation across a variety of programs, including teen pregnancy prevention programs. For example, Dr. Mary Terzian, a colleague at Child Trends, has been reviewing teen pregnancy prevention programs that work for Latino adolescents (forthcoming). She found very little available information on implementation in the evaluations. Recently, I was reviewing a comprehensive list of reproductive health programs from Child Trends’ database of programs that work—and don’t –to improve children’s and youth’s outcomes. In reviewing those studies it was clear that, although there are a few clear conclusions about what works and what doesn’t work, many strategies work in one program but not in others. Similarly, there are both short-term “light-touch” and long-term intensive programs that have evidence of effectiveness, but there are also both short- and long-term programs that do not work. Without detailed information about program operations, disentangling features that matter greatly from those that don’t is not possible.

Interestingly, current replications of evidence-based programs place a priority on ensuring that the programs are being implemented with fidelity to the program model. This is done to help improve the chances that the program effects can be replicated in other settings. This is important, but we have missed an important step: If we don’t understand what it is about the program that made it effective in the first place, then it is challenging to replicate the effects that made the program desirable in the first place. And the evidence is clear:  program replications tend to show smaller effects.  A better understanding of program implementation will improve the chances for successful program replications.

Karen Walker, Ph.D., Senior Program Area Co-Director, Youth Development


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Teenage Pregnancy Prevention: Finding Some Common Ground

Blum Photo with captionOn Thursday, May 2nd, in support of National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) will host a webcast that examines U.S. teen pregnancy and childbearing in a global context.  The presenter is adolescent health expert Dr. Robert Blum of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Blum’s presentation will highlight the historic low rates of teen pregnancy in the U.S as well as some of the challenges researchers and policymakers face as they seek to continue to reduce teen pregnancy.

U.S. teen pregnancy and childbearing rates have fallen dramatically over the last two decades.  In fact, they are at the lowest levels ever recorded.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that the teen birth rate was 31.3 in 2011––meaning roughly 31 of every 1,000 women ages 15-19 had a birth.1  This is half what the rate was just twenty years ago.  Rates of abortion have declined as well.

Despite these truly impressive gains, however, the U.S. teen birth rate is still higher than it is in every other industrialized country in the world.2  Also humbling is the fact that teen birth rates in the U.S. vary widely by race/ethnicity and by region, and are highest among women of color and those living in the South.

There is no doubt that progress in the U.S. has been hampered by the polarizing nature of teenage pregnancy and childbearing in the public and private arenas.  Even among researchers, there has been ongoing debate as to why teenage childbearing is a problem.  For many years, concern about teen pregnancy was motivated by a focus on the negative consequences of teen childbearing for women and their children.  Many public health campaigns use this approach.  However, it is becoming increasingly clear that teenage pregnancy and childbearing are often markers of being born and growing up disadvantaged in the U.S., rather than the point at which disadvantage begins.2  This does not mean we should not be concerned about the high levels of teen pregnancy and childbearing.  The fact that nearly four in five (77 percent) of teen pregnancies are unintended, most often occurring much earlier than wanted, attests to the ongoing importance of this issue.

How to reduce teenage pregnancy and childbearing rates has also been subject to much debate, with some people emphasizing the importance of abstinence education and others the importance of comprehensive sex education.  The reality is that both components are probably important to an effective program approach.  However, many of these programs are insufficient on their own.  The fact is that U.S. teens use birth control, particularly highly effective methods such as the IUD, much less than do teens in countries with lower teen pregnancy rates2––so there are many gains still to be made in this arena, be it through education or access.

More fundamentally, regardless of why we are concerned about teen pregnancy or what type of sex education we support, teens need to be intrinsically motivated to avoid pregnancy.  In particular, they need to be motivated by the educational, employment, and social opportunities available to them.  As Dr. Blum will highlight in his webcast, however, many social factors can inhibit the availability and use of these opportunities––factors such as poverty, violence, and discrimination.  Thus, there’s a particularly important role here for the central people in teens’ lives––parents, teachers, partners, and peers—to promote opportunities and increase motivations to avoid pregnancy.

Efforts to reduce teen pregnancy need to be multifaceted in nature––focusing on successful youth development as well as specific reproductive health behaviors––and engage people from multiple domains. Promising examples include the Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, a holistic program that works to develop individual goals and opportunity in addition to sexual literacy. The expansion of successful programs and the development of new evidence-based programs can help reduce teen pregnancy and childbearing.

Elizabeth Wildsmith, Senior Research Scientist


1 Hamilton, B. E., Martin, J. A., & Ventura, S. J. (2012). Births: Preliminary data for 2011. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved April 12, 2013, from

2 Kearney, M. S., & Levine, P. B. (2012). Why is the Teen Birth Rates in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(2), 141-166.

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Falling Response Rates to Social Surveys


Ho Hum.  Americans are less willing to do surveys these days.  Ho hum…

Unfortunately, this is a trend that is not positive; and we need to care.  If we want to understand and monitor the well-being of children, we need good data!

Fortunately, a Capitol Hill briefing on April 26, Falling Response Rates to Social Surveys:  Challenges, Implications and Solutions for Policy and Business,”brought the issue to policymakers.  It was sponsored by the American Academy of Policy and Social Science, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the National Academies’ Committee on National Statistics, Sage Publications, and the Russell Sage Foundation. Moderated by Chicago Tribune Columnist Clarence Page, panelists highlighted why survey response rates matter and what needs to be done to avoid having biased data. 

At Child Trends, we know that accurate, reliable data about the development and well-being of children are bedrock to developing programs and policies that improve child well-being.  Dr. Paul Emrath, with the National Association of Home Builders, described at the briefing how the housing field also relies on federal data to inform business decisions, such as construction plans. 

Dr. Roger Tourangeau, vice president of Westat, noted that getting good data has become increasingly costly due to declining response rates.  The difficulty of recruiting respondents has raised data collection costs, as interviewers have to make repeated call-backs, send letters of introduction, provide incentives, etc. Dr. Doug Massey, president, American Academy of Political and Social Science, and a professor of sociology at Princeton University, emphasized that the focus on response rates reflects concern that low survey response rates increase bias, as well as the cost of collecting data.

 Dr. Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, commented on “Big Data”, noting that these huge data bases derived from search engines and smart phones are not representative of the population and don’t provide the kind of information needed to inform policy and programs.

David McMillan, formerly of the Census Bureau, called on Congress to support R&D on data quality.  Indeed, all of the panelists emphasized the need for federal agencies and other researchers to focus on ways to improve data quality while holding down costs.  Adding administrative data to survey data is one way to do this.  Another approach is to do multi-mode surveys, which may, for example, draw an address-based sample and seek responses on the web (which are very low-cost), but follow up with phone or in-person interviews for people who don’t respond.

All panelists agreed that reliable data are a public good.  Private organizations don’t have the resources or the interest to conduct major surveys like the American Communities Survey, nor do they have any reason to make the data available as a public good.  I guess that leaves us with a need to invest in getting better response rates and unbiased data.

 In the information age, a nation cannot function well without good information!

Kristin Anderson Moore, Ph.D., Senior Scholar

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Interview with Co-Editor of Applying Implementation Science in Early Childhood Programs and Systems


Trend Lines Q&A with Tamara Halle, Ph.D., Child Trends’ Co-director of Early Childhood Research, about the new book she co-edited along with Allison Metz and Ivelisse Martinez-Beck, Applying Implementation Science in Early Childhood Programs and Systems.

Q. Who would benefit from reading this book?

A. The book is intended for researchers interested in implementation science frameworks, program developers who design and implement programs and systems, and policymakers who want to make sure the early childhood programs and systems they fund are effectively implemented.

Q. How do you describe implementation science?

A. Implementation science is the scientific study of the process of making evidence-based practices work in real world settings. Implementation science is important because when you scale up a program to reach more children and families, you want to make sure you achieve the desired outcomes.

Q. Within the early care and education field, what is the state of deployment of implementation science?

A. Historically, the application of implementation science in early care and education has lagged behind its application in other disciplines such as child welfare and health. In recent years, the number of federally-funded early childhood initiatives such as home visitation that include an explicit focus on implementation has been growing.  The topic of implementation is also increasingly being featured at research conferences in the early childhood field, so it’s an exciting time of expansion now.

Q. How do you get the professionals working in early care and education, many of whom have been in positions for many years, to make changes in how they work?

A. It’s hard to get people to change, but effective implementation of a new practice requires it. This is why we included a chapter called Readiness to Change in the book. You have to assess where people are in their readiness to change at each stage of implementation.  As you understand people’s willingness to embrace change you can adapt the appropriate approaches to engage them and to be successful in implementing new practices.

Q. In the book, you talk about how it can often take 20 years in lag time from research to practice. How do you shorten this gap?

A. The book talks about the importance of data and feedback loops to inform decisions about program and practice during all stages of implementation – from exploration to full implementation. This means we shorten the time frames from collecting data and sharing it with the stakeholders who need to know the results of the data to make program improvements and modifications. We need to move to a model where data are continuously collected, analyzed and shared in a feedback loop for continuous quality improvement.

Q. Should universities that are preparing the future workforce for the early childhood field spend more time teaching implementation science?

A. Yes. There does need to be more attention to educating early childhood practitioners and researchers in implementation science frameworks and techniques, and more salience of implementation science in peer review journals. We have to prepare, train and retrain our early care and education workforce – as well as the researchers and funders, who will be assessing the effectiveness of early childhood practices, programs, and systems – so that we can ensure that evidence-based practices are delivered in a way that the majority of young children and their families can benefit from them.

Note: Interview conducted by Frank Walter, Vice President of Strategic Communications, Child Trends

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The Case of Baby Veronica: One of Many Children Who will Deal with Ambiguous Loss through Foster Care and Adoption

This week the Supreme Court heard the case of Baby Veronica. This is a case in which adoptive parents were ordered to return a little girl who had lived with them from birth until after her second birthday.  Her birth father, a member of the Cherokee Nation, had reportedly relinquished his parenting rights. The basis of this ruling by a family court in South Carolina, where Veronica lived with her adoptive parents, was the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law enacted in 1978 that seeks to keep American Indian children with American Indian families.  While the Supreme Court reviews the legal merits of this case, it is worth reflecting on how the kind of loss Baby Veronica faces is not rare from the perspective of children in foster care or those who have been adopted.


In 2011, well over half a million children spent time living with caregivers other than their original birth parents. But something all these children had in common is that, whether for a brief period of perhaps a few days, months, or even for years, it was up in the air whether they would return to their original families or other relatives, move in with a different family on a temporary basis, be placed in a temporary group residential setting or set up to live relatively independently, or gain new legally permanent adoptive parents. This was the experience of over 638,000 American children who spent time in foster care at some point during 2011. Our analyses of data from the Adoption and Foster Care Reporting System indicate that more than two in ten of these children (over 125,000) were reunified with their family of origin during the year, and not quite one in ten (nearly 50,000) left foster care to live with relatives. About one in ten (over 65,000) left foster care with a finalized adoption or guardianship.[1]

Furthermore, in the United States, 1.8 million children live with adoptive parents (as of 2007), according to Child Trends’ analyses of data from the National Survey of Adoptive Parents. The vast majority know that they are adopted (97 percent of those ages 5 and older, according to their parents)—which means that they know they have a birth family with whom they might have grown up, had a few adults made a different decision.

How do children and youth understand and deal with the ambiguity and uncertainty of their family circumstances? Author Pauline Boss, an expert on family stress, describes losses such as theirs, in which someone is psychologically present for an individual but physically absent, as “ambiguous loss.” Dr. Boss further asserts that ambiguous loss is more difficult to cope with than other types of loss that have a clearer finality, such as death.

Five or 10 years from now, I imagine that Veronica—like many children who are adopted or who experience foster care, particularly those who are older, who have had long stays in foster care, or who are adopted—will love whichever set of parents she ends up living with. (Many foster children never end up living with permanent parents, but that’s another story.) I imagine that Veronica will also think: “I miss my other parents. Did the judges make the right decision? What would my life be like if the judges had decided differently? Do my other parents still think about me?”  And if she loses contact with the other parents, I imagine she will wonder: “Are my other parents okay?” Indeed, research on adoption such as that by Harold Grotevant, Ruth McRoy, and colleagues in the Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project finds that adopted individuals wonder about such questions. Regardless of the decision the judges make, ambiguity will persist for Veronica. She will have lost one set of parents, and she will have to find a way to make sense of the loss—an experience that is not as uncommon for children as we might like to think.

Sharon Vandivere, Senior Research Scientist

[1] Of all children in foster care at any point during 2011, about three in five (nearly 395,000) remained in foster care at the end of the year.

 Photo credit: Melanie Capobianco.

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A Mentor’s Story: Research Behind the Faces

Working in communications at Child Trends provides me access to an abundance of research on children and family issues. Although I am only starting my third month here, I am already recognizing the personal connections I have to many of the topics our research scientists explore. Take our new research brief on mentoring, which found that mentoring relationships that last more than a year and focus on education and social-emotional skills most often work best.

mentor pic

I have mentored three youth during my adult years and will use pseudonyms in describing them. Each mentoring relationship has been memorable and motivating to me. Chuckie, the first child I mentored, was seven years-old when we met. He lived with his single mother and older brother in a small, two-bedroom home in a low-income neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C.  Chuckie was an energetic kid who enjoyed our weekly outings to play in the park, go on hikes, eat pizza and read books. When we drove through his neighborhood, he would roll down the window and yell out hellos to the older teens walking around. He did not seem to be afraid of anything or anyone. Later, I found that beneath this hardened exterior was a kid craving affection and attention. I wasn’t prepared for how quickly he bonded to me. After our first get-together, he wrapped his skinny arms around my waist and started to cry when it was time to go home.  After about two months together, I had my first look inside his home. It was a wreck; dishes piled up in the sink, clothes and trash everywhere. I also discovered that he had no hot water in his house. It was tough to accept that he had to live in this condition, but I also knew I could not change his situation myself. For the next seven months, I saw him weekly and enjoyed the mutual satisfaction we both got from the time together. My time with Chuckie ended after I moved to Austin, Texas. A co-worker of mine took on mentoring Chuckie. I found out later that Chuckie stole money from him and his wife so the relationship ended. I often have wondered what happened to him.

More recently, I volunteered to mentor a 10-year-old, Troy, through a small mentoring program sponsored by the Perry School Community Services Center in Washington. Troy was a smart, athletic kid who preferred spending time shooting basketballs rather than studying. We created a game where he got to shoot the basketball every time he could recite the multiplication tables for a particular number. I am proud to say he mastered these tables and also got in many basketball shots. I worked with Troy for about 18-months. After his father was released from a correctional facility, his mother withdrew him from the program. I think he probably is doing well, but I don’t actually know.

After Troy, the Perry School asked me to mentor another youth. John was 13 when we met and living with a very nice foster family. He also had a very good relationship and weekly contact with his mother and brothers and sisters. Born with cerebral palsy, John has difficulties walking or ascending stairs on his own. Having never mentored a youth with a disability, I wasn’t sure I was equipped to serve as his mentor but the program manager at the Perry School encouraged me to give it a try.

For the first visit, I brought some books for us to read together. After asking John to read some pages and watching him twitch in his chair in silence, I realized that he could not read. It was a frustrating and embarrassing experience for him trying to read, and it was surprising to me. Over the course of the next two to three years, John and I met once a week for about two hours. We would go to the D.C. Public Library and look at beginning reading books. I bought some first grade reading workbooks and we went page-by-page through them. It was a slow process, but one that yielded steady progress. His social worker also played a role by getting him out of the special ed program in D.C. Public Schools and into a charter school that could give him more personal instructional help. He also was enrolled in a reading tutoring program. It was an intensive effort to help him catch up academically.

As the years went by, his language skills improved. He was reading the menu when we had lunch and telling me about the many things he was learning in school. But the most exciting change was his positive self-confidence and self-esteem. He had a growing interest in the world around him. He started talking about becoming a motivational speaker. Around the age of 17, he moved out of foster care and into an independent-living group home. He then began to learn the life skills needed to live on his own. He secured an internship with a government agency, where he now works full time. And, now, 21, he has his own apartment and a full-time job, where he often is asked to give motivational talks. I could not be more happy for him.

These three mentoring experiences have shaped my life, too. As a reading tutor, I gained an appreciation for literacy. My interest led to a career shift accepting a job at Reading Is Fundamental and later working with other literacy organizations including Raising A Reader and ProLiteracy. I carry this interest in and passion for children’s issues to my new job here at Child Trends.

Do you have a mentoring experience to share?

Frank Walter, Vice President of Strategic Communications

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Examining President Obama’s Proposed Funding for Adolescent Mental Health Programs

In President Obama’s 2014 budget, he proposes $235 million in new mental health spending primarily for efforts to address adolescent mental health issues in school settings. As Congress considers whether/how to fund in the area of adolescent mental health, it will be important to understand some basic facts about how many adolescents face mental health challenges, dispel some common misunderstandings, and consider some of the serious implications.


We would be wise to avoid the assumption that all, or most, people with mental illness are prone to violence.  Nevertheless, we should not ignore that they are sometimes intertwined.  Who can seriously believe that Loughner, Holmes, or Lanza are not young people who are severely mentally disordered?

As a society, we have for far too long danced around the issue of mental illness, regarding it with shame or embarrassment, if not outright denial.  Let’s get real: mental illness is common.  Among our adolescents, an estimated one in five has a diagnosable disorder; three-quarters of all mental illness are apparent by age 24.  In most cases, it is the young people (and, empathically, their families and friends) who suffer.  But, occasionally, if left untreated (more common than not), illness erupts as violence—toward oneself or others.

Child Trends has just released a Research Brief that highlights one aspect of this connection.  In the longitudinal study it summarizes, one out of four adolescents reported symptoms of moderate-to-severe depression and/or suicidal symptoms.  By the third “wave” of the study, these adolescents were now young adults.  Those who had the depressive or suicidal symptom as teens were significantly more likely than those who did not to have experienced violence in their sexual relationships, and to report that they or their partners had been sexually unfaithful.   A number of demographic variables were controlled for in the study, strengthening the credibility of a unique association between earlier depressive/suicidal symptoms and subsequent damaged relationships.  I stress, however, than even among the group with adolescent depressive/suicidal symptoms, most did not experience relationship violence or infidelity.

Sadly, though, violence is also a prominent feature in many children’s lives in America.  Recently released data from an authoritative national survey show that one in seven (14 percent) of 12- to 17-year-olds have been victims of violence or have witnessed violence in their neighborhood.  This is according to parents, so we can guess that, if anything, these figures are conservative.  Other data show that more than a third of all violent victimizations in the U.S. are categorized as “intimate partner violence.”

But it’s more complicated still.  Repeated exposure to violence (or other traumatic stresses) alters the developing brain—in ways still incompletely understood, but including an increased risk for depression and other mental illnesses, into adulthood.  We must interrupt this pernicious cycle, or live with costly and tragic consequences.

It is a misperception that schools themselves are dangerous places for children; young people are much more likely to be victims of violence at home, or on the streets of their neighborhoods.  Since schools are natural settings for reaching significant numbers of children, it makes sense for the  Administration and Congress to fund programs that improve recognition and treatment of youth struggling with  mental illness. These efforts can  create a climate of trust, communication, and caring that can begin to address the damage to children already inflicted by violence.  These are responses informed by the “what works” evidence.

David Murphey, Senior Research Scientist

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