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Originally published Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 7:12 PM

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A cure for social ills? Prevention

UW researcher is a leader in showing how prevention techniques can pay off in curing social problems.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Richard Catalano has a storehouse of solutions for problems that beset adolescents and follow them in to adulthood — academic failure, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, violence.

He’s not the first person to make a claim like that, but the programs he puts forth are backed by hard proof that they work. “Prevention science exists and it is effective,” Catalano told me when I visited his Northgate office.

Catalano is director of the Social Development Research Group in the University of Washington School of Social Work. The group started in 1979 with two people, Catalano and founder J. David Hawkins, and has grown along with the field. Now it has about 20 researchers and 50 staffers.

Catalano was lead author on a 2012 paper for The Lancet that, in collaboration with researchers from around the world, is part of an effort to let leaders and the public know the ability to deal with social problems has matured. Solutions are waiting to be put to use.

That wasn’t true when Catalano’s career was getting started in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. “We were trying to do rehabilitation, but we were mostly doing habilitation,” he said, so they changed to focus on prevention. He recalled testing 24 programs aimed at addressing delinquency or substance abuse and finding that none was getting results.

The field of prevention science was just beginning to bloom.

Researchers such as Hawkins and Catalano identified factors that contribute either to positive behaviors and outcomes for young people or negative ones.

They and others in the field designed and tested interventions and built programs around the ones that got results. Now the challenge is to build systems to address the needs of entire communities, and the first step is to tell people who may have become jaded by past failures that data-driven solutions exist.

Some individual programs have made a name for themselves, such as Nurse-Family Partnership, in which a nurse begins working with a young woman during her pregnancy and continues the nurturing relationship through the child’s second birthday.

Studies that follow families for years find numerous benefits for mother, child and community and calculate the public is saved more than $3 for every dollar spent on the program.

Catalano wants more communities to take advantage of the numerous proven programs that exist for every age group through early adulthood and said one obstacle may be loyalty to established programs whose effectiveness has not been tested. Every program should provide proof that it works.

Catalano, also said that instead of spending money a little here and a little there, he would like to see communities, areas of 25,000 to 40,000 people, blanketed with effective interventions in families and schools for two or three years, or whatever it takes to replace negative factors with positive ones. Then concentrated efforts would move to the next neighborhood and repeat the process.

The research group can do assessments of a given area identifying the risks and protective factors that young people have.

Risks and strengths are matched to approaches that reduce risks and strengthen protective factors, and the approaches are linked to specific effective programs. Communities make the choice of which risks or protective factors to focus on and which programs to use.

All around the world, fewer people are dying from infectious diseases because we are better at preventing or treating them, Catalano wrote in his paper for The Lancet.

But too many are dying from preventable behavioral causes.

The vaccines against those ills are waiting to be used in the systematic way in which we attack the flu.

Learn more on the website, www.sdrg.org.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-0464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com Twitter @ jerrylarge.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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