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For Kids’ Sake

"Social work is hard. It is extremely hard," says Associate Professor Cathy Potter. "In child welfare, in particular, there are tremendous gaps in our knowledge of what works.” Photo: Matt Suby

Cathy Potter’s lab isn’t populated with microscopes and test tubes. She can’t point to an organism and say, “I discovered that.”

But she can point to impressive results.

“My work makes this a safer place to live,” she says. Potter is a social worker with a scientist’s mind—a great combination in her field.

Potter, associate professor with DU’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) and executive director of the Institute for Families, studies kids. Specifically, she studies kids with a lot of problems—primarily those in the child welfare system and in juvenile detention centers.

The Institute for Families is a research and technical assistance unit within GSSW. With a staff of 10, the institute provides all of the training for Colorado’s child welfare workers.

“We train the people who go out there and decide if a kid is safe or not,” Potter says. “Should they leave them there for the night? Put them in foster care? Those are really huge decisions about people’s lives. We’ve got to give social workers the absolute best tools that we can.”

Discovering those “tools” is at the heart of Potter’s research.

Recently, she and GSSW Prof. Jeffrey Jenson were hired as outside contractors by the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections to evaluate the effectiveness of a new intervention program. The pilot program was seeking to treat youth offenders in a collaborative approach—focusing on a youth’s mental health, substance abuse and delinquency symptoms rather than just on a crime.

“We tend to look at kids in the juvenile justice system and say, ‘OK, you’ve crossed the line. You’re a bad kid,’ and we’ll do an intervention based around their specific crime,” Potter explains. “But some are kids who have disproportionately high substance abuse issues and mental health problems.

So, just to intervene based on the offense specifically … well, you’re probably missing a few things.”

Potter and Jenson were given access to youths at two Denver-area detention facilities. However, when you study children, you must jump through a lot of hoops just to begin your research. It’s not like ordering up frogs for dissection. Potter and Jenson had to receive consent from parents, assent from the youths and establish protocols within the detention facilities.

“We had doctoral students running all over metro Denver getting parental approvals,” Potter recalls. “Most of these kids were only in detention three days, so we had to move fast.”

Then, Potter, Jenson and the students conducted interviews with the youths. In reality, the “interviews” consisted of surveys with coded answers but, as Potter explained, kids in detention centers can’t be expected to sit down with a 12-page survey and complete it. So, Potter and Jenson trained GSSW doctoral students to conduct quantitative interviews with the youth offenders.

In addition to the two detention centers, Potter’s team gained access to adolescents at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center. “That’s the maximum-security facility for boys who have committed a serious crime. Some have severe mental health problems,” Potter says.

“We were meeting with some interesting kids. Scary kids. And some kids who seemed like they had it all together,” Potter says. “Our doc students would return from the interview and say, ‘What a great kid!’ But then they’d pull the official data and gasp. Those kids had done some amazingly bad things.”

Once the Institute for Families team had interviewed the subjects, they then had to find the youths six months later to evaluate if the collaborative intervention had made a difference. They determined that it had: A collaborative approach to juvenile offenders improves treatment results and reduces recidivism.

According to Caren Leaf, director at Lookout Mountain, the study has helped her better serve the facility’s young men.

“Cathy’s work was instrumental in maintaining the money allocated to our enhanced mental health program,” she explains. “Her research helped us demonstrate to the state funding sources that these services decreased the risk symptoms of youth. It also showed that they leave incarceration demonstrating less pathology of self-harm and risky behaviors and are safer to re-enter communities.”

Although that study was complete, Potter and Jenson didn’t stop working.

“As social workers and researchers, we tend to be more interested in the basic questions,” Potter explains. “Through our connection to that study, we became interested in the subsets of problems that kids exhibit. Is a certain mental health problem connected to a criminal problem?”

“In the mental health field post Columbine, there is greater concern about kids who become violent but who don’t represent the normal delinquency profile,” Jenson adds. “They may have mental health problems that make them snap, but they may not have long records in the past.”

Potter says that much of her research evolves this way: The institute is hired to evaluate someone else’s program. But once she and her staff get their hands on the data, they just can’t help themselves.

Potter and Jenson began re-analyzing the data that they had collected and discovered patterns that they called “clusters.” This study, “Cluster Profiles of Multiple Problem Youth,” will help improve treatment of youth offenders.

“An intervention with a pot-smoking, low-violence sex offender with few mental health problems should be different than with a high-cocaine-use, high-violence drug sales offender,” Potter says. “Those are really different kids. We defined three of the most pervasive cluster areas, and it shows promise in helping create new intervention approaches.”

According to Potter and Jenson, youths in cluster one were characterized by high levels of substance use and mental health problems and by moderate levels of crime. The second group reported high levels of substance use, moderate levels of mental health problems, and significant property and person offenses. Youths in the final cluster had moderate mental health problems and relatively low levels of substance use and crime events.

“Now that I have this information,” Potter says, “I ask, ‘What do I do with it? How can I use it?’”

Often, though, she doesn’t get to take that next step because, like any researcher, she must follow the money. The institute receives a good portion of its funding from state contracts to provide training and evaluation. The next step—implementation—is a passion for Potter, but not one that she can frequently pursue due to fiscal limitations.

“We do a lot of research to describe problems. Like our clusters—that study helps us describe a population of kids who ought to receive a different intervention, but it doesn’t develop the intervention and then determine if it works,” Potter laments.

Still, Potter is one of the highest-funded professors at the University when all outside funding sources are considered, says James Moran, vice provost for graduate studies and research.

“In the past 10 years, Cathy has brought in $14.5 million in contract fees and research grants,” Moran says. “She has averaged $1.45 million per year.”

Moran also says that $4.3 million of Potter’s 10-year total was for direct aid to students. Potter has supported more social work students than any other faculty member in the history of GSSW, he notes.

“The University of Denver aims to be a great private university dedicated to public good,” Moran says. “Cathy’s work exemplifies what we mean by ‘public good.’ She is entirely focused on the public system. The main focus of her work is to improve child welfare and juvenile justice in this state. That is critically important for the University’s mission.”

And yet, Potter sees so much more to be done.

“Much of social work is still based on what ‘feels right’ instead of on tested and studied methods. If you’re going to train people who make life decisions for vulnerable youths every day, you’d better have the full evidence base to support your training.”

Potter says she is driven by her own experiences in the field as a social worker. She was fresh out of college and working in Fulton County, Ga., on child abuse and neglect investigations. “I saw some things…” she pauses. “Social work is hard. It is extremely hard. In child welfare, in particular, there are tremendous gaps in our knowledge of what works.”

Although she’s working to help practicing social workers, Potter also understands how her work impacts society. And that understanding gives her a sense of urgency.

“I work in the areas that are a huge drain on our society, and I am primarily interested in what works,” she says. “We need to improve the juvenile justice recidivism rate, which is roughly 30 to 40 percent in the first year and can be as high as 50 percent for serious offenders. They return to jail in the first year! Well, that may be your car. That could be your kid hit in the drive-by shooting.

“We’d better do something good with these kids while they’re locked up,” Potter adds. “They have serious mental problems. The day they serve their sentence and walk out on their own, it could be you they meet next.”


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