Marina Tolou-Shams, PhD, a psychologist from the Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center, has received a $3.4 million grant to study the behavioral health and associated risk factors of adolescent offenders in the Rhode Island Family Court system. The study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, will focus on non-incarcerated, court-involved youth, and will monitor what risk behaviors the teens may develop, as well as the underlying causes.
The study, titled “Epidemiological Project Involving Children in the Court,” or Project EPICC, will follow 400 Rhode Island Family Court-involved youth between the ages of 13 to 17, and their caregivers. Tolou-Shams’ team will monitor the development of drug use, HIV/STD risk behaviors, psychiatric symptoms and recidivism in the adolescent offender population in the two years after the initial arrest or court contact.
“This is the first large-scale study of its kind,” said Tolou-Shams. “Our findings will have the potential to shape the way we work with court-involved youth, in not just the public health field, but also in the psychology and psychiatry fields. There may be better ways to help this population avoid developing risk-behaviors or breaking the law again.”
Prior research of detained and incarcerated youth has shown that between 50 and 70 percent of detained juvenile offenders have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, even when excluding conduct disorders. Mental health problems increase criminal activity risk and, when paired with substance use, contribute to health and legal difficulties for adolescents that can persist into adulthood.
The likelihood of acquiring HIV/STDs is also substantially increased among court-involved youth. Studies of juvenile detainees with both substance use and psychiatric concerns show that most are sexually active and more than half have had multiple partners and unprotected sex.
“There has been an emphasis on moving away from juvenile confinement and instead developing prevention and treatment programs for juvenile offenders in the community. Yet, only a handful of studies have examined these behaviors among non-detained juvenile offenders, who represent 80 percent of all legally involved youth,” said Tolou-Shams.
The study will also identify the individual, family and extra-familial factors that may be related to these outcomes in court-involved youth. “By following these teens for two years, we can see if there is a common track that these first-time offenders are experiencing, and how their families and home life may contribute,” said Tolou-Shams.
Tolou-Shams, who is also director of the Rhode Island Family Court Mental Health Clinic, hopes that the findings from this study will help to develop recommendations on how the court system can better support first-time young offenders to keep more teens from repeating offenses. “Project EPICC is among the first to try to target what to emphasize in early public health interventions for this largely understudied group of juvenile offenders,” said Tolou-Shams.
This study is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse under grant number R01DA034538, named “Drug Use and HIV/STI Risk Trajectories among Court-Involved Youth.” For more information about this study, please contact the Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center at 401-444-8539.
Tolou-Shams’ principal affiliation is the Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center, a division of the Lifespan health system in Rhode Island. She also has academic appointments at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Departments of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Pediatrics.