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Safety Net: A Comprehensive & Coordinated Effort to Support At-Risk Youth in the Cambridge Community

By James Barrett, Ph.D. and Robert Haas

Dec 3, 2010 Back

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The Cambridge Police Department recognizes that criminal activity and incidents of violence involving youth are strongly linked to adults, particularly within families.  Over 3 million children are at risk of exposure to parental violence each year; Children who witness violence at home display emotional and behavioral disturbances as diverse as withdrawal, low self-esteem, nightmares, and aggression against peers, family members and property. , and in 2001, 5.5 % of youth between the ages of 12 and 15 and 5.6% of youth between the ages of 16 and 19 reported being victims of violent crime during the year. [1] [2] [3] One of the major issues the Department recognizes is the need to provide children (and their families) who come into contact with the criminal justice system, preventive and intervention services.  It is likely that juvenile offenders are not yet hardened to a life of criminality, and may be more easily influenced to conduct him/herself within the law than an adult.  Because the attitude and actions of police can have considerable impact upon young first offenders who are often badly frightened at the time of arrest, the Cambridge Police Department is committed to approaching juvenile crime with an eye toward preventing and controlling juvenile delinquency, and deterring future criminality. Officers are now afforded a greater degree of latitude and discretion when encountering youthful offenders. Along those lines, in 2007, the Cambridge Police Department created a Youth and Family Services Unit comprised of 6 school resource officers, 2 juvenile detectives, as well as a sergeant and lieutenant.

With initial funding from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security’s Safe and Drug Free Schools Program, the program was initially developed as a juvenile diversion program to divert non-violent juvenile offenders away from the juvenile justice system.  As the program evolved, however, partner agencies found that youth were being referred from the schools, community and families who were at risk for delinquent behavior but had yet to commit a formal offense. In order to support these youth the program will be expanded beyond juvenile diversion alone.  The CPD actively sought out ways that it could partner with youth serving agencies in the community; a partnership that was formalized through the establishment of Safety Net.

Safety Net is a collaborative effort among the Police Department, Cambridge Health Alliance, Cambridge Public Schools, and the Department of Human Services.  It is founded on the principle that in order to meet the needs of at-risk youth there needs to be ongoing collaboration between families and the agencies that support the city’s youth.  As Safety Net began to take form, the leadership sought out successful police-mental health partnerships to help guide the development process.

Theoretical Underpinnings:

In March of 2008, leadership from Safety Net visited the Yale Child Center Community Policing CDCP Program, a collaborative effort between the New Haven (CT) Police Department and the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence at Yale University’s Child Study Center.[4] The CDCP focuses on the experience of violent trauma in the lives of children and families and ways that systems of care can improve services and clinical outcomes. Their intervention strategies are also grounded in an integration of developmental, psychodynamic, behavioral and neurophysiologic aspects of the traumatic response.[5] The CDCP Program was highlighted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (1999) as a “promising strategy to reduce gun violence”. The CDCP is founded on the following key elements: (a) Cross training among mental health professionals and police; (b) consultation by mental health professionals either by a pager service or at the scene of an incident; (c) case conferences in which the stakeholders (police officers, clinicians, community workers, etc.) review, evaluate and prescribe follow-up services; and (d) follow-up services. Follow- up services entail CDCP police officers and clinicians conducting home visits to ensure the safety of victims and their children, to answer questions about the legal process, to provide information about practical issues and psychological responses to violence, and to offer assistance in connecting with other community services, including clinical services for families.[6] [7]

The planning committee for Safety Net also utilized the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice’s (2006) blueprint for addressing the needs of youth with mental health needs in contact with the juvenile justice system to develop programmatic structure and activities.  The NCMHJJ believes that any effective intervention program with at-risk youth will include at least the following: (a) collaboration among juvenile justice and mental health professionals; (b) identification of the mental health needs of youth in contact with police or juvenile justice; (c) diversion whenever possible of youth with identified mental health needs away from incarceration and (d) access to effective mental health treatment.[8] [9]

Safety New in Action:

Over the past 3 years Safety Net incorporated the principles outlined above into a working structure for the program. The primary goal of Safety Net is to identify those children and teens in Cambridge who may be at risk for problematic or unsafe behavior and link them to the support and services they need.  Every other week, a group of police officers, clinicians, and youth workers meet to review current cases and initiate discussion on possible new cases.  A course of action is developed for each case and examples of services interventions include: home and school visits, screening for mental health problems, linkage to formal mental health, services and supports, linkage to mentoring, linkage to youth development activities, increased support in the schools.  If the child has committed a formal offense a determination is made as to whether he or she is eligible for the juvenile diversion program. 

One of the earliest success of Safety Net was the program’s capacity to intervene with young people who have committed offenses ranging from juvenile firesetting, to theft, to assault and drug offenses and link these young people with comprehensive and coordinated services and supports whether they be formal mental health services or informal supports such as mentoring and job assistance.  Consequently, juveniles that would usually be “turfed’ to agencies such as the clerk magistrate, or in the case of firesetting, to the police and fire departments, can now receive a more intensive intervention designed to both address their risk behaviors and foster their competencies.


[1] Peled, E., Jaffe, P.G. & Edleson, J.L. (Eds.) (1995). Ending the Cycle of Violence: Community Responses to Children of Battered Women. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

[2] Carlson, B.E. “Children’s Observations of Interparental Violence” in Edwards, A.R. (Ed.) (1994). Battered Women and Their Families. New York: Springer. pp. 147-167.

[3] Child Trends DataBank.Cross Currents Issue 1, August 2003. Violence in the Lives of Children.

[4] Marans, S. (2004). Psychoanalytic Responses To Violent Trauma: The Child Development-Community Policing Partnership. Analysts in the trenches: streets, schools, war zones. Pages 211-236.

[5] Marans, S., Berkman, M. (2005). Police-Mental Health Collaboration on Behalf of Children Exposed to Violence: The Child Development-Community Policing Model. Handbook of Community Based Clinical Practice. A. Lightburn and P. Sessions (eds.); Oxford University Press. Pages: 426-440.

[6] National Center for Children Exposed to Violence. (2005). CD-CP Program Components.Retrieved on May 25, 2010 from: http://www.nccev.org/initiatives/cdcp/progcomp.html.

[7] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. OJJDP Report: Promising Strategies to Reduce Gun Violence. 1999.

[8] National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. A Blueprint for Change:Improving the System Response to Youth with Mental Health Needs Involved with the Juvenile Justice System. 2006.

[9] Hirschfield, P.,Maschi,T.,White,H.R.,Traub, L.G., Loeber,R.(2006). Mental Health and Juvenile Arrests: Criminality, Criminalization, or Compassion? Criminolgy, Vol.44, No.3. Pages: 593-630

About The Author

James Barrett, Ph.D. and Robert Haas

James Barrett, Ph.D., is a faculty member at the Cambridge Health Alliance and one of the directors of the Cambridge Massachusetts Police Department’s Safety Net Program for at-risk youth. Dr. Barrett currently serves as adjunct faculty at Boston College, where he received his doctorate in counseling psychology. He is also an Instructor in Psychology at the Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and a contributor to: The Community Psychologist, Professional School Counseling and among others, The Handbook of Human Development for Health Professionals. His clinical passion lies in making mental health services more relevant and accessible to boys and young men.

Robert Haas, Commissioner Cambridge Police Department
Early in Commissioner Haas' career, he was actively interested in working with youth who set fires and distinguished himself during his time as Police Chief in Westwood, MA for his work with juveniles. As the Secretary of Public Safety for Massachusetts, he was responsible for the oversight of several criminal justice and public safety agencies such as the State Police, the Department of Corrections, the National Guard and the Department of Fire Services. Commissioner Haas brings thirty years of law enforcement experience and has completed all the coursework in the Doctorate Program in Law, Policy and Society at Northeastern University. He was appointed Commissioner on April 9th, 2007.

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