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A New Day Dawns for Eric Wright

Soon after Eric Wright joined SPEA he noticed that faculty don’t spend a lot of time in their offices—and that was part of the appeal.


Soon after Eric Wright joined SPEA he noticed that faculty don’t spend a lot of time in their offices—and that was part of the appeal.

Wright had been hired to help create a Center for Health Policy (CHP) and he wanted to be deeply engaged in hands-on policy research. In other words, he didn’t plan on spending a lot of time in his office either, not when there was so much work to be done in the community.

“I want this to be different from traditional academic centers,” says Wright. “Clearly, we’ll be doing high-level, rigorous, quality research. But we also want to be deeply engaged in a way that’s unusual for traditional academic research institutions.” While the application for the new Center is still pending at this writing, the professor is already in the trenches, partnering with state agencies, nonprofits, business, and community leaders. “It’s a different way of being a researcher. I love it.”

other goals Before landing the job at SPEA, Wright taught in the department of sociology at IUPUI and focused his research on the interaction of HIV/AIDS and mental health. Shifting from sociology to SPEA wasn’t difficult. “When you’re dealing with HIV you’re automatically dealing with poverty and racism and as a sociologist my work naturally evolved toward looking at those larger questions.

“In its infancy,” Wright continues, “sociology was problem-focused. These days it’s more about statistical analysis, not social policy questions. And while I enjoyed statistical analysis and still do some of that, I also wanted to know how I could make my work have an impact. I’ve had a lot of experience working with state and local government and community-based agencies. But working in a traditional sociology environment, I didn’t have colleagues engaged in social policy. Now I’m surrounded by people doing this kind of stuff.”

The start of something big

It was David Handel who first identified the need for a healthy policy center. The director of SPEA’s health administration program and former Clarion COO “realized that there was no single entity in the state of Indiana looking at the big questions in health policy in any organized way,” explains Wright, who had participated in an ad hoc committee to explore the possibility of establishing such an entity at SPEA.

The result of the committee’s deliberation? A proposal to establish a new Center for Health Policy to serve as a resource for Indiana to address complex health policy issues. According to the proposal, the CHP’s advisory board includes representatives from the School of Medicine and its Center for Bioethics, Department of Public Health, and the Regenstrief Institute; the School of Law and its Center for Law and Health; the School of Nursing; the School of Liberal Arts; and the School of Social Work.

Wright’s goal is to develop fundable projects that yield high-impact results. One such endeavor is designed to provide technical assistance to Indianapolis’ Early Intervention Planning Council. “Marion County owes the state $90 million because of overruns in the juvenile justice system,” he explains. “As the city and council started talking about tackling this huge deficit, they realized that the real question in dealing with the juvenile justice system is: How do you keep kids from getting into the system in the first place? About 60 percent of those kids have a serious emotional or behavioral disorder, which typically manifest early on in life. Early intervention and proper treatment might have kept them out of the system in the first place.”

already underwayThe project is a model of academic/community partnership based on one used by the Dawn Project (DP), a system-of-care for children in Marion County. The program, administered by Choices, Inc., a nonprofit care management organization, provides service coordination and wraparound services to young people with serious emotional disorders and their families. The aim of the DP is to facilitate a team-based approach to service planning using “child and family teams” (CFTs). CFTs are typically made up of the young person, his/her immediate caregiver(s), a DP service coordinator, representatives from all agencies providing services to the young person or the family, and other community members nominated by the family as being key supports (e.g., other family members, friends, church members, etc.). It is the responsibility of the CFT to determine treatment goals, decide on services that would help the family meet those goals, and monitor the progress toward meeting the treatment objectives. A critical feature of the DP’s philosophy is that all decisionmaking must be both family-focused, family-driven, and involve the young person to the extent possible, given his or her age and level of functioning. All decisions regarding treatment and service provision are consensus-based. The results of Wright’s ongoing evaluation of the DP indicate that over two-thirds of young people who are enrolled successfully meet their treatment goals. An issue brief describing the complete findings from DP evaluation is forthcoming.

In a manner similar to that of the DP, Wright and his team will work with appointees from a broad range of sectors, including the child welfare, school, and court systems. “We’re going to look for at-risk kids in the places you’re most likely to find them—schools—which is not historically the way Marion County has dealt with this problem. There’s been no coordination before. Our goal is to get everybody on the same page.” Wright expects cooperation. “Everybody in each of the systems sees a window of opportunity because Marion County is so deeply in debt to the state. There is now fiscal pressure to make serious changes. Simply hacking the juvenile justice budget won’t solve the problem. Everyone has come to the same conclusion: something must be done, changes have to be made.”