U.Va. Researchers Put Close Watch on At-Risk Youth — and Local Budgets

November 13, 2008

November 13, 2008 — Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville spend millions of dollars each year on social service programs to help area youth considered "at risk" for a variety of reasons, from failing at school, to behavioral and emotional issues, to parental neglect or involvement by the courts.

The per-child costs of these services, required under Virginia's Comprehensive Services Act, have risen dramatically in recent years, becoming a significant expense for local budgets. A group of University of Virginia economists and students, led by professor Steven Stern, has spent more than 1,500 hours investigating where every dollar is being spent and the impact of this spending, with an eye toward making future spending more cost-effective.

In recognition of this effort, last week the Charlottesville/Albemarle Commission on Children and Families — which oversees the area's social services — named the team members "Volunteers of the Quarter."

"It's been a great experience on two levels," said Chris Clapp, a doctoral student in economics. "Being able to work with the professors and see how they tackle these problems, and as a grad student working hands-on in collaboration with the CCF folks to really help them out."

The "big-picture review is part of looking at how to better serve this population," said Gretchen Ellis, director of the commission. "But we wouldn't have been able to do it without the tremendous work they've done."

Most of the research thus far has been devoted to organizing and integrating seven years of records from numerous databases to answer baseline questions like how each city, state and federal dollar has been spent, how much has been spent on each child through dozens of programs, and what results have been measured. 

Undergraduate students have taken a major role in this work, accounting for more than half of the hours logged so far. Some of the most challenging data manipulation, Stern said, was done by "Excel wizard" Sri Gopalan, a fourth-year double-majoring in economics and computer science.

"This was a great opportunity, since I got to bring my own skill set in and contribute in that way," Gopalan said.

Preliminary analysis has found that the city and county's total spending has risen manyfold over the past 10 years, while serving only slightly more children, said John Pepper, another economics professor on the project. The price of services has been rising, both for group care and in-home care, and fewer children are being placed in traditional foster homes.

Still, these changes don't seem to account for the full spike in costs, Pepper said. More definitive answers are at least six months off. 

With costs in the millions, "these programs are really taxing many local governments in Virginia," Pepper said. There are real issues of whether local communities can afford them and whether the services can be improved, he said.

The team's ultimate goal is to use statistical modeling to discern the impacts of various factors – the socio-economic characteristics of each youth, the types of problems and the particular services youth receive — to guide more cost-effective spending, Pepper said.

Such university-community partnerships — where students and professors get hands-on research and problem-solving experience as they bring the university's scholastic resources to bear on a community need — are not new, but they have happened sporadically in the past, often initiated by an individual professor or student. 

Since the early 1990s, Stern has served on local community projects addressing teen pregnancy, transportation for the elderly and disabled, and services for moderate mental illness issues. The resulting research has been the subject of a number of published papers, he said.

U.Va. faculty and students have worked with the Charlottesville/Albemarle Commission on Children and Families on a number of projects, donating more than 4,000 hours of service in 2007, valued at $200,000.

An umbrella group, aptly named the Community University Research and Service Partnership, was formed in January 2007 to promote and foster such partnerships in the future.

Combining research and community service has been identified as an institutional priority for U.Va., so last year the University Outreach office was reorganized as the Office of University Community Partnerships, said the office's director, Megan Raymond. 

In October, the U.Va. Board of Visitors approved the creation of the Jefferson Public Citizens program to comprehensively support research and community service throughout students' academic careers.

— By Brevy Cannon