Mississippi Program Aims to Prevent Delinquency

A delinquency-prevention program that is coordinated with the help of the School of Social Work at the University of Southern Mississippi is making positive strides in the community it serves.

Michael Forster, director and professor, along with Timothy Rehner, assistant director and professor at the school, are the cofounders of the Family Network Partnership (FNP).

The program is a nontraditional, community-based delinquency-prevention program operated in conjunction with the School of Social Work. The primary objective of the FNP is to prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system by strengthening the community in which they live.

Forster said the program started in 1996 after Hattiesburg, Miss., community leaders, including the local police chief and Youth Court judge, attended a colloquium on how to curb youth violence. From that meeting, Forster and Rehner developed the idea for the FNP.

"We found a great deal of support," Forster said. The project got a boost from state public-safety grants. "From there, we steadily developed a growing array of programs and services," said Forster, who noted the program is funded by federal, state and local grants as well as by private donations and volunteers.

The FNP encompasses many activities, including hosting after-school programs that involve children and youth in recreation, the arts, health education and cultural enrichment activities. A bicycle repair shop, computer shop and ceramics classes are some of the things that keep students busy after school.

FNP also has a direct counseling program that treats youngsters who are considered at-risk. This part of the program also offers counseling services to the at-risk child's family when needed.

"The intent is to help develop pro-social behavior," said Rehner.

Students at the School of Social Work also benefit from the program as they have a chance to fulfill their internship, casework or field placement requirements by working at several of the FNP centers in the community.

"We've developed the program as field placement sites in the community, and we work with people in the community," Forster said.

In its 12 years of existence, the FNP has made noticeable improvements in the children and youth it serves, the social work professors said.

Rehner noted the recidivism rate of the FNP children and youth involved in at-risk assessments is at 10 percent to 15 percent; for those not in the FNP program, the recidivism rate is around 50 percent to 60 percent.

As far as the future is concerned, Forster said he would like to see the FNP evolve into more comprehensive vocational programs where students can learn work-related skills that develop into teamwork-building skills.

He said teaching healthy lifestyles is also important, and continuing such projects as a community garden gives the students an opportunity to learn food-producing skills that benefit the community's food supply.

Improving the housing stock in the area the FNP serves is a next step as well.

"This would give the kids and adults the opportunity to learn skills," said Forster. The goal is to not only help the youth in the program, but also improve the community they live in, he said. "We want to have a greater impact on the quality of life of the people who live here," he said.

Securing stable funding for the FNP is also high on the priority list for the social work professors.

Forster noted that students and faculty from different departments and schools at the University of Southern Mississippi have offered their support to the FNP by volunteering their talents to teach participants about specific disciplines.

"This program provides a concrete bridge to the community that other disciplines at the university can feed into," Forster said.