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Needs Assessment of Boston's Youth at High Risk


Navin, P. Christopher and Daniel Jaffe.  (September, 2005) "Boston High-Risk Youth Network: Needs Assessment of Boston's Youth at High Risk," A Report to the Boston Capacity Tank.



Forty percent of Boston's children live with one parent and twenty-three percent, nearly 25,000, live in intense poverty. Moreovoer, only 30% of Boston's drop-out in the 16-19 age group were employed in 2000 ranking Boston 44th among the nation's largest 50 cities. Considering such statistics alongside various potential assets to bring these youth into a healthier place, the Boston High-Risk Youth Network initiated a year long study to investigate the needs of high risk youth which they define as youth who are
aged 12-21, court-involved, truant or out of school, gang-involved, chronic substance abusers, homeless or pregnant
and/or a parent.

The Boston High-Risk Youth Network was created by a partnership including the Black Ministerial Alliance, United Way of Massachusetts Bay, Emmanuel Gospel Center and Boston Ten Point Coalition (all known as the Partners).



Utilizing a three year federal Compassion Capital Fund grant, the Partners brought together over 130 people to begin a year-long planning process to assess the needs of high-risk youth in Boston. The diverse group consisted of private and public agencies, service providers, funders, policy makers, faith-based and secular service providers, community organizations and businesses who met monthly during 2005. From the larger group, they created two priority groups who faciliated the research process and hired Navin Associates to conduct the research and write the report.  They used seven key informant interviews and six focus gruops to gather the primary data.



In brief, the key findings from the report are as follows:

  1. Characteristics of Youth at High Risk:
    • most are teens in their middle to late teens
    • most are males
    • most are African-American or Latino
    • most are truant, at risk of failing in school, or dropped out
    • many are from single parent homes
    • many are using alcohol and/or drugs - mostly marijuana
    • most are concerned about being a victim of violence
    • fewer are concerned about pregnancy and parenting although it may be on the rise for certain population groups (i.e. Vietnamese youth)
    • homelessness is not an issue for most youth but is a major concern for many who are released from DYS without a viable housing option
  2. Concept and definition of High Risk Youth: There was widespread agreement with the Network's definition of high-risk youth (see "Overview").
  3. Effective Strategies for Working with High Risk Youth: From the opinions of the participants in interviews and focus groups, the report found that youth at high risk need very good, well-trained and empathetic staff who can implement the following methods:
    • establish a trusting relationship with the youth,
    • listen carefully to learn what help s/he desires,
    • connect him/her to appropriate services that will help.
    • outreach,
    • give youth small tasks/responsibilities to help them develop skills and be empowered,
    • mentoring,
    • work with the parents or mentors of the youth,
    • build upon partnerships and collaborations to obtain services and avoid duplication,
    • provide flexible programming that can be easily adapted to youth in fresh and relevant ways,
    • perform homevisits,
    • when doing referrals, know the right organization as well as the staff within the organization that will respond quickly and sensitively,
    • appeal to the faith-based beliefs of youth and their parents where appropriate.
  4. Priority Needs and Gaps in Services: From the opinions of the participants, the following prioritized list of needs of youth, gaps in services and recommendations was made:
    • Prevention Services (interesting and fun, age-appropriate, mental health services that are non-stigmatizing, truancy services)
    • Employment and Job Training (jobs for youth over 15, year-round jobs, training for applying and keeping a job, financial literacy)
    • Boston Public Schools (better placement and services for learning disabled, accountability for educational outcoumes, more consistent truanchy prevention policies and practices and more effective methods to involve parents and interested professionals/community organizations)
    • Parent Involvement (parents need to provide more structure, support and advocacy at school or in court, better resources to teach parents how to advocate for their children)
    • Safety (youth tend to avoid various social gatherings or places for fear of violence, maximize youth and police relationships, increase the number of streetworkers and raise their salaries, increase number of center-based programs for at-risk youth, offer more resources for pregnant or parenting youth, make sure youth released from DYS have safe places to stay, offer more evening activities)
    • Structural Issues (increase the on-going training, resources, salary and support of high-quality youth workers, create structures to coordinate among criminal justice personnel and youth services providers, provide more interpreters and translators in courts, schools and other institutions)
    • Material Needs (provide more meals and clothing through youth programs, more collaboration among youth serving organizations to develop transitional and supported housing for youth with no place to stay, better foster home and more substance abuse treatment beds)



  1. Do you see any gaps in the research done for this report? Do you see any problems with their definition of high risk youth or with the design of the program?
  2. Were you surprised by any of the findings? If so, why?
  3. What do you think are the main barriers to implementing the suggestions for addressing the needs and gaps in services for at-risk youth?
  4. Why is it so hard for organizations to work together to better service at-risk youth?



  1. Boston is not unlike other major cities in their statistics for at-risk youth.
  2. And, like other major cities, these youth are full of potential and ready to lead healthy lives if the right organizations can come together to assess needs and gaps in services and respond accordingly.
  3. More assessments like this one should be done in every city across the country and world to help better direct the planning and implementation of services to more effectively serve our high risk youth.
  4. What will be vital about this Boston research is how its findings get followed up through sustained collaborative efforts.