Systemic Problems in Youth Services?

There is reason to be optimistic about today’s youth, as well to take pride in how society encourages positive youth development. All in all, youth in North America seem to be doing quite well.

But there is also reason to be concerned about how well the complex system of programs for “youth at risk” is managed, and if we are getting the best results. There seems to be a general malaise among those directly involved. In Canada, the USA, Australia, and the UK, local and /or provincial/state governments as well as voluntary organizations such as the United Way, are attempting to come to grips with youth system issues. In Europe, the Nordic countries have commissioned a review of the Nordic model of social support, with a module looking specifically at children and family issues. One issue identified was how new “market model” policies are affecting service provision. (Challenges for Future Family Policy in Nordic Countries) (

A bit of historical context:

In the late ’60’s and early 70’s, the post-WWII baby boom generation began entering the labour market in the midst of a social revolution.

Among other things, the social and economic roles of women were changing dramatically. Female labour force participation exploded, and the typical economic family changed suddenly from a one earner to a two earner model. Liberalized divorce coincided with increased cohabitation without marriage, and we witnessed rapid growth of single-parent, joint custody, and blended families.

The children of the baby boomers grew up with different parenting patterns from previous generations, and traditional culture provided few role models for the new family dynamics. Support services like child care, kindergarten, summer camps and children’s recreation and skills programs were mostly still geared to Mom being at home. Parental leave was hardly on the agenda. The social infrastructure was behind the times and the public policy response was slow.

On the one hand, it was a heady time to be a youth. Less parental supervision combined with more money. (Where in the previous generation, one earner families had three or four children, now two earners had two or three.) However it was a difficult time to be a youth with problems. It was easy to lose your way. To make matters a lot worse, it was also a time when hard drugs like crack cocaine were coming onto the market in large supply, and prescription drugs were easily accessible.

Youth problems became evident in school dropout and youth crime, with rates peaking in the eighties and early nineties. Youth unemployment ran as high as 25% some years. Teenage pregnancies and relationship breakdowns contributed to high numbers of impoverished young single parents. Youth mental health issues, high suicide rates, and afflictions like fetal alcohol syndrome emerged. Disadvantaged populations such as African Americans and Aboriginal Canadians suffered disproportionate youth issues. Huge numbers of youth each year were charged with drug offences. Youth justice diversion programs were overloaded and not very effective.

Since that time though, public policy has been adapting, as have families, communities and institutions. Things have been getting gradually better. Education achievement and graduation rates have greatly improved. The gaps between the graduation rates of disadvantaged groups and the rest of the population have been decreasing, although slowly. Youth crime rates as well as crime in general, have been decreasing steadily over the past two decades, and in some cases are only a third of what they were at the peak in the early nineties. (, and

With youth now representing a smaller percentage of the population (especially in Canada) the resources expended for youth services including education, are proportionately higher than in earlier years, and more specialized services have been established. Local governments provide sophisticated recreation support; volunteer sports and recreation are widespread, and businesses have become very involved in supporting many youth programs. And more family money per youth has spurred the development of many specialized commercial and nonprofit programs.

School drop out rates and youth NEET rates (“not in employment, education or training”) are also down from the 1990’s, and Canada and the USA are at or below OECD averages on these measures. (Countries like France and Germany tend to keep more of their youth in the education system, while in North America they are likely to be working part-time.) “Doing Better for Children” OECD 2009 (

An increasing percentage of youth are not at serious risk of delinquency or exclusion, and are making successful transitions to adulthood. We do see increasing concern for youth mental health issues, but this probably results from increasing awareness, and of increasing service provision. There surely still are serious youth problems in our societies including stubbornly slow movement in child poverty rates, vulnerable teens, youth gangs, addiction to drugs and prescribed medications, and a new range of cyber/internet issues. But the overall scale appears to have decreased.

So if we can say that there are fewer youth who would be considered to be at risk (“risk” being defined by a combination of personal, family, social and economic factors) how are we doing with that population? Can we expect that with more manageable numbers and more resources available per youth that we have greater success in this area?

We don’t know.

We do know from evaluations and meta evaluations (some are reported in a previous Politudes posting) that many youth service programs do succeed in helping the youth they engage. We don’t know which ones are better, best, or most cost-efficient. We know that there are a few approaches that don’t work and can do more harm than good.

We don’t know what the overall success rate is for a country, region or city. While the “not-at-risk” youth tend to benefit from general services (such as schools), and from diverse and dispersed services (such as non-profit or commercial camps and courses, community facilities and volunteer-run programs); the services offered to those at risk tend to be “targeted”, meaning that the youth have to be identified, the intervention more focused and sustained. Which generally means that somewhere a bureaucracy is responsible to oversee, regulate, coordinate, evaluate, fund and manage overall service provision. (This is not intended to belittle the valuable services provided by major charities like Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and many other organizations. They play crucial roles in helping many youth at risk. But they are only a part of a large and complex system, and it is the overall system which is being called into question.)

We don’t know what percentage of youth at risk are identified by youth serving organizations, or at what stage. We know that risk behaviour may become evident in pre-teen years, often at school. We have ample research to explain how children at risk may progress to more serious difficulties if there is no intervention.

We don’t know what percentage of those recognized to be at risk are offered special services.

We have no idea of the collective cost – benefit of these services. We don’t know how effective, sensitive, responsive, well-planned and coordinated, the whole system is. Despite a lot of good work by dedicated and skillful people, we don’t know how many youth are missed by system gaps, are excluded by organizational protocols, recruited but then failed by professional, organizational or system shortcomings.

In a recent book on youth services in the USA, author/editor Robert Kronick claims that a lack of research consistency and different incentives for reporting by schools, youth serving agencies and researchers, lead to a chaotic mass of data and studies which come to different conclusions about youth at risk. He concludes, “…when it comes to data about at-risk youth, the information simply isn’t there, or it is everywhere and we can’t make sense of it.” (At Risk Youth: Theory, Practice, Reform, Robert Kronick, ed. Routledge)

The system reviews that have been attempted usually recommend a holistic framework for understanding youth and responding to their needs, one which is sensitive to the range of issues and factors affecting them.

“Various discussion reports commissioned by youth serving organizations lean towards the holistic frameworks highlighting the importance of integrated policies and services across the continuum of youth development.”, Toronto”s Youth-Serving System (United Way of Toronto, 2008, Tazim Virani Associates)

They acknowledge that a “deficit approach” is too narrow and that youth resiliency and strengths must be considered and nurtured. They identify the need to target specialized resources effectively to those youth identified as being at serious risk, and to provide preventive interventions for those at lower risk levels. They acknowledge the need to use resources as efficiently as possible, to have accountability, coordination and evaluation.

People working with youth consistently call for a more integrated system, better coordination. They recommend a move away from “silo funders” – a proliferation of funding structures, each attempting to target their resources narrowly, each requiring their own special funding application processes, their own information reporting systems, their own accounting requirements, their own evaluation frameworks. They point out the folly of so many different structures trying to target their funding to their own legislative requirements or political priorities. They point to the proliferation of organizations and programs as governments seek to impose a “market model” with more competition and theoretically more choice for families. Research organizations such as the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, ( point to the major hurdles for successful innovations to be “scaled up” because of this proliferation.

But while everyone wants more system integration, current policies seem to be pushing the system in the opposite direction; toward more fragmentation, more targeting, more temporary contracts, more competition for funding, more commercialization. The reviews point to the difficulties of getting different organizations and institutions to collaborate and even to exchange information because of conflicting mandates and regulations. Despite the quantum advances of information technology there seems not to be a capacity to apply it to large multi-jurisdictional systems. While resource expenditures per youth are high, virtually every organization feels itself constrained from achieving its objectives by budget constraints and institutional obstacles.

In Australia, the Queensland State Government has launched an inquiry into child protection and the development of a youth strategy. Their identified priorities include “budget and fiscal repair”, a market-based supply of services, and individual choice over what services to access., Johnson, Buckley, Crane, Leebeck, “Re-Visioning the Queensland Youth Sector”

In Canada the Government of Ontario has also undertaken (2010) a review of children and youth services. Their understanding of youth strengths and risks; social, community, family and mental health issues is broad and well-informed. ( They also identify system problems such as lack of planning and coordination, communication issues and obstacles, multi-jurisdictional responsibilities, silo funding and accountability structures, lack of scale-up resources and capability, inter-organizational competition, and lack of institutional memory.

Some of the respondents in their review recommended that a legislative framework was needed which would mandate and require collaboration among organizations of all types and across all jurisdictions. In their “Stepping Up” framework, the government established a multi-agency working group to coordinate as much as possible the activities of different departments within their jurisdiction. Multilevel information-sharing and coordination committees were also established at local or regional levels.

“Stepping Up reflects a holistic and ecological view of youth that considers the role individuals, communities, society and different systems and sectors play in youth wellbeing. It captures the many dimensions of youth development. In this way, Stepping Up is a first-of-its-kind framework for Ontario.”

Despite the holistic view, the Government of Ontario did not introduce means for coordinating services emanating from other jurisdictions. This should not be quickly dismissed. Given the clear mandate that provinces have to legislate in relation to social services, as well as to regulate professions, it is not unreasonable to think that they could define delivery and reporting criteria for youth services even if they are funded or delivered by other jurisdictions. Nor did they include a plan to evaluate the effectiveness of their framework and multi-level structures. They did though, to their credit, introduce a good set of indicators of youth well-being, along with a promise to update the data regularly.

Stepping Up – Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services…/youthopportunities/steppingup/contents.aspx

In most cities there is no convenor bringing all jurisdictions together regularly, although occasionally a United Way or social planning council may make a “one-shot” or time-limited effort. These tend to be information-sharing sessions and fall well short of system coordination. Similarly, directors of youth-serving agencies often meet at local, provincial/state and national levels, but they have little collective power, and so serve as a consultative body or occasionally advocate for improvements.

Municipal governments play varying roles in service delivery and coordination, depending on the particular jurisdiction which governs them. However, multi-level convening and service coordination is rare and partial at best. In the UK, the Local Government Association recently released a report entitled “LGA: Rewiring Public Services”, in which they recommend that local government be given a clear mandate to plan and manage all front line services for children to … “support integrated commissioning of services focused on outcomes, not service areas.”

A bold statement, but likely to come a cropper. National authorities (in the UK) don’t like to give up their authority, and local government has no power to impose coordination. Politics you see.

While funders often require or pay for evaluations of individual projects or services, and occasionally of multifaceted community-level interventions, we are aware of no evaluations of the well-intentioned but often fractionated efforts at planning and coordination of complex systems. So no one knows if all of the different efforts to target the beneficiaries of all of the different programs produce more cost-effectiveness than using a universal base such as the school system, for the coordination of all children and youth services. No one knows if the introduction of market models and competition for financing produces cost savings or better services, or simply adds levels of confusion and obstacles to coordination. No one knows if communication technology facilitates better and more effective communication. There are serious gaps in our efforts to understand and improve the service infrastructure for youth at risk.

TO OUR READERS: We invite your comments, references to studies which you believe shed light on the issues mentioned above, as well as accounts of major innovations designed to counter the problems cited.

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