New center takes on youth crime in county
by Bob Shiles, Staff Writer
The RobesonianLUMBERTON — Although Robeson County’s rate of juvenile violence appears staggering, Paul Smokowski, director of the new North Carolina Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention, says that other counties across the state are experiencing similar trends of violence among their young people.

“While Robeson County is unique multi-culturally, it has a lot of company when it comes to juvenile violence,” said Smokowski, a researcher from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The indicators of violence here look more urban than rural. This is quite interesting and dynamic.”

The center, based in Lumberton but serving all of Robeson County, is being funded with a federal $6.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the nation’s first rurally focused youth violence prevention center, and is being led by researchers from UNC.

Smokowski, a professor in the UNC School of Social Work and a core faculty member of the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center, said that under the current funding cycle there are similar youth violence prevention centers being established in Chicago, Richmond, Va., and Flint, Mich. In past funding cycles, the CDC has funded centers in Philadelphia, Memphis, Tenn., and Riverside, Calif., he said.

The goal of the center is not only to determine the causes of juvenile violence in Robeson County, but to try to fix it, Smokowski said. The five-year project is a collaborative effort among the UNC School of Social Work, the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center, and community agencies from throughout Robeson County, including the Robeson County Health Department, the nonprofit Center for Community Action and the Public Schools of Robeson County.

Robeson County is one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse rural counties — with more than 68 percent of its approximately 135,000 residents being American Indian, black and Latino. According to the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the county’s youth death rate of 123.6 per 100,000 people is nearly double the state’s rate of 74.7, and the county’s homicide rate of 23.9 per 100,000 is more than triple the state’s average of 7.2 from 2004 to 2008.

The county is also consistently ranked one of the poorest in the country, with about 30 percent of residents living below the poverty level.

“This project is not at all about Chapel Hill researchers coming in and telling you what to do. It is about us working closely with the community,” Smokowski said. “How successful the program will be depends on the time, energy, and caring the community brings to it.”

According to Smokowski, the grant money won’t be used for brick and mortar. It will be used to rent office space at sites within the county.

The director said the grant money will pay personnel costs and the costs of implementing specific programs once it is determined what programs can best be tailored to meet the needs of Robeson County. He estimates that six to eight full-time people will run the project each of the five years. There will also be additional part-time workers and volunteers.

“Smokowski said that the project is in its planning phase, where researchers are going into the community to talk with young people, parents, teachers, social workers and others to determine why youth violence is so prevalent throughout the county. Social workers and researchers will then work with the local school system, Health Department and community agencies and organizations to implement programs that have proven to be successful in other areas.

“Few of these programs have been tested in a rural setting,” Smokowski said. “They will have to be tailored to fit the community.

To assess the impact of the center’s activities, the rates of violence in Robeson County and across the state will be tracked. The project will follow 3,000 Robeson middle school students over five years and compare their development with similar students in Columbus County.

“We are targeting middle school students so that there can be positive development before problems become entrenched at a later age,” Smokowski said. “We want to promote positive and successful development of middle school age students so that they go on and have bright futures.”

The Rev. Mac Legerton, the project’s co-director and executive director of the Center for Community Action, says the project will enhance the lives of all Robeson County residents.

“This is going to be wonderful for county families and children,” he said. “For the first time, we’re beginning to take a look at all causes of violence.

“Never has there been a long-term study of violence in Robeson County,” Legerton said. “We do have programs and organizations that address specific types of violence such as domestic violence and rape, but we have never conducted a long-term effort across the county to lower the use of violence.

“Violence has not been a priority in Robeson County,” he said. “By making it a priority, it becomes a challenge rather than a problem.”

Legerton believes that once the causes of juvenile violence are identified, they can be eliminated.

“We’re a county that has the strength to face its challenges and the capacity to meet them,” Legerton said. “This grant indicates the confidence in which Robeson County is held by external and significant state and federal institutions.”

Beth Jacobs, who is serving as the project’s local community coordinator, shares Legerton’s view that the project will be successful in Robeson County. Partnerships and programs that target violence already exist, she said.

“This grant could have gone anywhere,” she said. “We wouldn’t have this program if we didn’t have the infrastructure and the intellect to carry it out.”

Jacobs, who will coordinate the local community aspect of the project from her office at the Center for Community Action, views the project as a “good opportunity” for the county.

“We’re working to solve our own problems,” she said. “UNC, the CDC, and model programs aren’t going to solve the problems. Community involvement is a critical component to success.”

In addition to Jacobs, the project has two other local coordinators. They are Jennifer Clark, a county Health Department employee who is serving as social work coordinator, and an education coordinator, who had not been named when this story was written.

— Staff writer Bob Shiles can be reached at (910) 272-6117 or bshiles@heartlandpublications.com.

Read more: The Robesonian – New center takes on youth crime in county

Print Friendly, PDF & Email