BOSTON — THE Rev. Keith Miller III, a Baptist minister and community activist in Washington, D.C., tells the story of a man who keeps diving into a river to save drowning children as they are swept by his fishing spot. Finally the exhausted man trudges upstream to find out why so many kids are plunging into the current. Finding a rickety bridge, he repairs it and ends the danger.
Pastor Miller is part of a team of researchers and trainers who are going ``upstream'' to help communities patch holes through which young people fall into drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, crime, and violence.
As juvenile-justice professionals, social workers, educators, and members of the clergy wage a valiant but often frustrating effort to rescue youths already caught in these behavioral whirlpools, a small but growing movement is working to prevent vulnerable kids from getting into trouble in the first place.
The advocates of preventive community organizing take their model from the public-health field, where the identification of ``risk factors'' has lessened the incidence of some health problems before they require expensive treatment. These advocates teach community leaders to pinpoint risk factors that, research shows, contribute to behavioral problems among adolescents, and they help develop programs to lower those risks.
``Risk-focused prevention,'' as the theory is called, still has a short track record, so it's hard to evaluate its effectiveness. But its proponents say their techniques have been tested extensively.
Meanwhile, leaders in communities that are working to implement such programs, like Gerald Marroney, a judge in Pueblo, Colo., say their communities feel ``empowered'' to address juvenile violence and other misconduct.
Leading the way into risk-focused prevention is Developmental Research and Programs (DRP) in Seattle, founded by Profs. J. David Hawkins and Richard Catalano, researchers in delinquency and drug abuse at the University of Washington. Pastor Miller is a DRP consultant who helps train community leaders in the company's step-by-step ``Communities That Care'' program.
STARTING in 1986, several dozen towns and counties in Washington and Oregon received United States Department of Education grants for DRP pilot projects. Since then, DRP trainers have worked with communities in Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Maine, South Carolina, and other states. Last week, Miller and an associate met for three days with city leaders in Beaumont, Texas.
In a series of training sessions several months apart, DRP personnel meet first with ``key leaders'' - often the mayor, judges, the chief of police, the school superintendent, and civic leaders - to elicit top-level commitment to a prevention program.
Next, the key leaders recruit a broad task force of community ``doers'' to design and implement the program. The task force's first jobs, under DRP guidance, are collecting data to identify the most salient risk factors in the community - such as the availability of drugs, high rates of divorce or family conflict, or behavioral and academic problems in elementary schools - and making an inventory of local-government and private-sector resources.
``We learned in the pilot programs that the risk-factor-assessment process is critical,'' Dr. Hawkins says. ``Identification of risk factors has to be based on hard research, or people in a community just push for programs related to their field.''
Finally, DRP helps design a strategy to ameliorate the highest risks. ``We advise people to address only three to five risk factors at a time, or systems get overloaded,'' Hawkins says.
This year, DRP will hold training sessions in risk-focused prevention in 45 cities under a grant from the US Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
* More information may be obtained from Developmental Research and Programs, 130 Nickerson, Suite 107, Seattle, WA, 1-800-736-2630.