Dr. Jodi Viljoen, Psychology, on Using Evidence-based Practices to Treat Young Offenders

September 13, 2016

A desire to put research into practice, along with a strong personal sense of wanting to help people, seems to drive the work of Psychology's Dr. Jodi Viljoen. As Associate Professor of Clinical and Law-Forensic Psychology at SFU, Viljoen is also the Associate Director of the Institute for the Reduction of Youth Violence, where she provides outreach to local and international agencies in order to assist them in implementing evidence-based practices for treating adolescent offenders. Along with a team of researchers and graduate students, Viljoen has developed a tool called the Short-Term Assessment of Risk and Treatability: Adolescent Version (START:AV, 2014), which assesses youths’ strengths, vulnerabilities, and risks for violence and victimization. The tool is successful internationally – it has been adopted by agencies in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, and other countries, and it has been translated into several different languages. Dr. Viljoen and her colleagues have also developed an intervention-planning guide, the Adolescent Risk Reduction and Resilient Outcomes Work-Plan (ARROW, 2014), which is used with several thousand adolescent offenders each year in Canada.

Viljoen credits her own youthful experiences as noteworthy influences for her interests in youth violence and offending. While growing up in rural Alberta, she worked at a community resource centre that ran programs for youth; later, while pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta, she volunteered in inner-city schools. She also worked at a maximum security prison doing psychological testing and for Correctional Services Canada as a program coordinator for inmates being released from prison. It was through these experiences that Viljoen recognized where she could help: “I often felt as though there was more I could and should be doing.  I was also struck by the enormous disconnect between what I had learned in university and what was actually happening in practice in terms of services for offenders.”

Viljoen says it was this disconnect that inspired her to go on to complete her MA (2001, SFU) and Ph.D (2004, SFU). It was during her graduate training in clinical psychology and an internship at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, that Viljoen heard the stories of the youth she worked with, stories that fueled her interest and made her want to do more. For Viljoen, many of these stories are haunting, and illustrate that some responses to adolescent offending can be “misguided, ineffective, and even harmful." She recalls one example as particularly illustrative: “at one site I worked at in the States, it was relatively common for parents to press charges against their child. I saw one youth who was around 11-years old who was incarcerated because he had tried driving the family car. His parents, who were very strict and law-abiding citizens, pressed charges for stealing the car because they wanted to teach him a lesson. When I talked to him in the custody centre, he was terrified. He was quite immature and very young-seeming and up until that time, he had led a fairly sheltered life. I was the only person he had talked to since being in the custody centre. After I had left for the day, he started crying; he was lonely and homesick. The correctional officers thought his crying was too disruptive so they put him into solitary confinement and locked him in his cell.” For Viljoen, “these types of stories and experiences emphasize how important research is for guiding our practices. Even when programs and approaches were developed out of good intentions, good intentions are not enough.”

Asked about the future of evidence-informed guidelines in Canada, where critics have suggested that the approach of our previous federal government was dismissive, Viljoen is hopeful, if measured, in her response: “I think that the tides are changing, which is fortunate.  Researchers can bring knowledge and information to the table that can be useful for decision-makers. I think this is especially important in the justice system context. Sometimes, in this area, laws are driven by fear and emotions, and are knee-jerk reactions to media-covered cases. As such, research is sometimes able to bring a more objective and practical standpoint which can contribute other perspectives to debates.”

The value of multiple perspectives will also inform Viljoen’s next big project, one which she readily admits to being “really excited” about. Her team will examine how some youth manage to desist from crime despite difficult life experiences and vulnerabilities; they will focus on stories of success in former adolescent offenders. “We are interested in using research as a means to change some of the inaccurate stereotypes and perceptions of young offenders, foster hope, and serve as a reminder of youths’ enormous potential to change.”

When asked what her current work tells us about the benefits and challenges of assessing and treating violence and offending in adolescents, Viljoen is thoughtful: “Assessing adolescent offenders’ risk and needs is complicated. Psychologists do not have a crystal ball into the future, and it is certainly not an exact science. However, compared to practices used in the past, which were mainly relying on gut reactions and intuition, I think we are doing better. That said, we still have a long way to go. The ultimate goal is always to help manage and reduce risk; we need to conduct more research on whether we are achieving that goal.”