Violent crime, particularly related to drug trafficking, is one of the world’s major causes of death. Anilena Mejia suggests parenting training may be effective in reducing crime and violence.
Crime is the main cause of death in many countries. In Guatemala City, it is estimated that 116 people in every 100,000 are murdered each year. By comparison, even in the most dangerous cities in the UK only two people in every 100,000 will die due to crime.
Central America and the Caribbean (CAC) have some of the highest rates of death from crime in the world, as this map illustrates.
Source: The World Bank
The map clearly demonstrates the extent of crime in CAC. Geographically, CAC is that little bridge that joins South and North America. Historically, and since colonial periods, this region has been a route for transporting goods between the South and the North and also between Europe and the American continent.
Due to its geographical position, nowadays CAC is the main route for transporting drugs between those who produce it (cocaine and marihuana are mainly produced in the South) and those who consume it (usually in the North, where the population have enough cash to buy it).
Most of the violence in the CAC region is as a result related to drug trafficking. Consequently, when violence prevention is discussed it is important to consider how children and families in the CAC region can be protected from engaging in illegal activities and becoming victims of drug-related violence.
Parenting training are interventions to empower parents and promote positive parenting skills. Literature suggests that parenting training has been effective in preventing substance use in the UK and elsewhere. It has also been shown to be effective in reducing aggressive and anti-social behaviour in childhood, thus preventing involvement in crime later in life.
Unfortunately, most evidence on the effectiveness of parenting training comes from the United States, Australia and Europe. In our literature review published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, we were able to identify only eight evaluation studies of parenting interventions conducted in low and middle-income countries. Most of those studies examined programmes in South East Asia and Africa. None took place in the CAC region.
Due to this gap in research, our Parenting and Families Research Group (PFRG) at the University of Manchester decided to test if a parenting intervention could protect families and children in Panama, where crime is one of the leading causes of death. We recruited 108 parents of children aged three to 12, who were selected from six state-owned schools in communities with the highest crime rates in the country.
One group was a control which received no intervention, while the other attended a session on the topic of ‘dealing with disobedience’. This group watched videos, took part in role-plays, planned activities and received written resources to take home.
This method of empowering parents with support from practical material is called Triple P, which was developed in Australia in the early 1980s. We chose this particular method because it is a brief, light-touch intervention. This fitted with the reality of most families in Panama who do not have time – they have little flexibility in the work environment – or resources – because of lack of transportation and childcare – to attend intensive interventions. Moreover, brief interventions are targeted and entail less cost for the governmental agencies responsible for programme implementation.
Six months after the intervention, parents were assessed and interviewed about their children’s behaviour. Compared to the control group, there was a marked and significant improvement. Parents who took part in the intervention were also less stressed, more confident and better at dealing with difficult behaviour than those in the control group.
Our research poses several issues for debate. Firstly, our data suggests that something as basic as parenting training could protect children and families from engaging in crime-related activities. However, what is the optimal level of adaptation that we need to consider when transporting an intervention from the UK or Australia into a different region with very high violence rates? And how much intrinsic, local knowledge do we need to incorporate to make this type of transported interventions work? In our project in Panama, the facilitator of the intervention – who was also the principal researcher – was Panamanian, so our cultural adaptations were largely intuitive.
Secondly, if we are talking about reducing violence rates in regions such as CAC, it is important to also discuss how we can prevent and decrease drug consumption in the North. Should we implement programmes to prevent substance use amongst populations in the North and so reduce drug demand and break the violent connections in regions were the drug is transported? If reducing drug demand is impossible, then we need to discuss policies for avoiding ‘cold-blooded’ and violent drug trafficking, which is taking away the lives of those within the transportation chain.
Our research suggests that it is possible to protect families and prevent children from engaging in crime-related activities if we invest in the implementation of evidence-based interventions. However, a comprehensive macro-level analysis of the problem suggests we need to discuss ways to reduce drug consumption in the North and so cut demand. This might provide a more effective policy to reduce violent drug trafficking.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author solely and not necessarily those of the Parenting and Families Support Centre (University of Queensland), or the Parenting and Families Research Group (University of Manchester).