The Demonstration of Caring

by Lucianne Englert

While conducting research in a Florida facility for first-time juvenile offenders in 1990, Janie Canty-Mitchell discovered a startlingly simple fact: all the adolescents she interviewed had experienced loss of caring and supportive people in their lives. She noted that these losses usually occurred immediately prior to the adolescents' initial delinquent activities. Since that experience, Canty-Mitchell, an assistant professor at the School of Nursing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has focused her research on the health needs of minority adolescents who are at risk.

"Sometimes 'at risk' has been used to define minority youth, but I think it's really a very general term," Canty-Mitchell says. "It really means youth of any racial or ethnic group who may have potential for developing health problems in the future. That could be for various reasons: it could be economic circumstances, the social conditions in which they live, or their environment."

Since her experience in Florida with juvenile offenders, Canty-Mtichell has looked specifically at the issues of caring and hope. When she began the study in Florida, Canty-Mitchell was particularly interested in "what kinds of concerns this particular population had in the area of health, but when I arrived at the facility, I realized there were much broader issues youth were concerned about,"she explains. "The theme that seemed to present itself was 'survival in the face of loss,'" she continues. Many of the juveniles had experienced a death in their family and some had even witnessed the death. "Based on my interviews with the youths, their delinquent activities seemed to happen after these losses."

Canty-Mitchell's doctoral dissertation focused on the specific stressful events that had occurred in the lives of the youthful offenders in the Florida facility and how those events had affected their hopefulness and ability to take care of themselves. Losses of family members and significant others created a loss of caring, protection, safety, discipline, control, and support. All these losses posed real threats to the adolescents' survival--physical, emotional, and social. For the youths she studied, "survival in the face of loss" meant learning how to continue to function on a daily basis and to make do with very limited resources, in spite of all their losses. Canty-Mitchell found that for these youths the manifestation of delinquent or destructive behavior appeared to be a mechanism the juveniles developed and used to survive in the face of their tragic experiences.

"Most of the earlier research about juvenile offenders came from the perspective of sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists," Canty-Mitchell notes. "I started out more qualitative, investigating factors influencing health, well-being, and delinquency from the juveniles' point of view." The definition of caring Canty Mitchell developed--or, more precisely, the youths' definition--covers behaviors and activities that demonstrate assistance and support to the individual and actions perceived by the individual as expressions of love, attention, concern, respect, and support. "They thought it was important to have someone respect them as a person and respect their concerns," she says. "Another big area in caring is having some limits," Canty-Mitchell adds. "The youths wanted and needed discipline--not discipline in the sense of harshness, but as instruction in how to do the right thing."

Canty-Mitchell's writes of the types of loss and pain experienced by the youths: physical or emotional loss of a parent, relative, or significant other; loss of educational experiences; loss of respect from family and other adults; loss of a safe environment; loss of personal goals or the feeling that there is meaning to life; loss of people who cared for them; loss of identity; loss of economic support; loss of discipline; loss of self-control; loss of a positive outlet for expressing emotion; loss of social control. The juveniles Canty-Mitchell studied suffered not just one or two of these losses, but several, often over and over again.

"The prescription for health and well-being for youth at risk may be improved caring and support by nurses, counselors, significant adults in the community, teachers, and family, all of whom are in positions to provide a listening ear to youth," Canty-Mitchell says. It takes an entire community to create the caring environment necessary for youth who are at risk to develop into productive citizens, she asserts. In nursing, caring theory has traditionally focused on the nurses who provide caring to individuals, families, and community groups, according to Canty-Mitchell. Her study with juvenile offenders suggests that nurses should go beyond provision of caring to actively promote caring in youths, their families, and significant others within the community.

During a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at IU, Canty-Mitchell expanded her research on caring in an attempt to quantify its affect on adolescents. Starting with caring issues within the family unit, she developed the Adolescent/Family Caring Scale, which was tested with 237 youths in the Indianapolis public school system. She found that lower scores on the family caring scale were related to low hope in the youths and increased number of reported physical fights with family members and others. In July, Canty-Mitchell submitted a grant proposal to the National Institute of Health for funding to continue her research. "I want to investigate how family caring, hope, and other factors relate to a wider range of aggressive behaviors," she says.

Grant proposal writing and formal research are only a part of Canty-Mitchell's involvement with youth. Active in volunteer work in church and other settings, she extolls the value of service in improving communities and society as a whole. "Volunteer service to the community demonstrates a commitment level beyond programs and services tied to research grants," she notes. The question she always asks herself is, if research or program money were not available, would I still be interested or willing to contribute my time and energy? The answer for Canty Mitchell is an unequivocal yes. In the summer of 1995, she and Sharon Garrett, a master's student in IU's community health nursing program, developed the Creating Caring Communities project in conjunction with staff from the summer youth program of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. This volunteer effort created a pilot project that helped focus youths on caring for themselves and for their community. "It transcends the family," Canty-Mitchell says. "It's important for families to care for youth, but it's also important for people within the community to care." She felt the church group provided the proper foundation for the youths to learn how to build a caring community with the help of supportive adults.

In eight two-hour sessions throughout the summer, Canty-Mitchell worked with the church's youths, designing discussions and group activities centered around community and caring. After the youths involved identified specific problems in the community that were of concern to them, Canty-Mitchell challenged them to help tackle some of those problems. The top priority in the minds of the adolescents in the program was violence in their community. Like many people in all walks of life, the youths felt the problem of violence was so severe that they were powerless to address it. "It was a challenge to get them to see what they could do on a small scale. One youth simply said, 'I will not fight,' and her project was supported by the Creating Caring Communities participants and volunteers. Another youth set up small recycling projects. One youth was adamant about 'doing something about too many liquor stores' in his neighborhood; he started a petition to limit the number of liquor stores."

Empowering the community's youth and helping them trust their own perspectives were goals of the Creating Caring Communities program. "I think that, in many instances, when we talk about youth who are at risk, there's always the feeling that we as professionals have to do something for the youth," Canty-Mitchell says. "The new paradigm, I believe, would be working together with the youth to create solutions to problems within their communities. Whenever there's this idea that we have to do for the youth, it indicates that we think youth are not capable of doing for themselves, that communities are not capable of doing for them," she adds.

"I've always wanted to have governors and legislative bodies proclaim a 'Year of Youth,' and in that year, to look at the creativeness of youth in all communities," Canty-Mitchell says. "We're so focused on the problems--violence, single-parent households, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases--that we don't focus on the greatness, on what is creative, and all the gifts and the strengths," she asserts. "What if, for a year or two, we looked at the gifts and the greatness in our communities? I think it would be transformational. It would let youth see that they are being viewed by society as more than the potential problems they could create. They are being seen as what they could become."

Canty-Mitchell points out that youths have within their nature resiliency, "protective factors that help them achieve great things despite all the negative images that are portrayed. For the most part, I see that the youths within our communities aspire to achieve. They have ambitions and goals, but along the way they may be stopped from realizing those ambitions," she says. "To help them realize those ambitions it is up to coalitions working together to create caring communities."

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