Independent Projects Trust

      The Strengths Perspective: Family Resource Centres
      As A Medium For Crime Prevention And Reduction In


Youth are witnesses, perpetrators and victims of crime. However they are involved, society as a whole has to assume responsibility for breaking the cycle of crime and violence. Literature and evidence from existing programmes indicates that crime prevention should begin with children and young people and that the school is the ideal locus for such programmes.

The Crime Reduction in Schools Project (CRISP) based at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa, brings together a multi-disciplinary group of academics and researchers from the Faculty of Community and Development Disciplines (CADD) which comprises the disciplines of psychology, anthropology, social work, architecture, town planning, adult education, education, nursing, and development studies. The research project initially formed part of a broader initiative to introduce service learning into the university curriculum. Through direct services, organisational networking, policy advocacy, and research, the overall aim of the project is to develop a comprehensive, integrated, multi-disciplinary intervention research model for crime prevention in schools. This paper views the project from a strengths perspective and focuses particularly on the development of Family Resource Centres as a medium, not only for crime prevention, but also for capitalising on the collective resources of schools, the university, families, and communities.

The strengths perspective is not new to social work. It was evident in the writings of Hollis (1966) and Perlman (1957) who urged social workers to focus on client strengths. More recently it has been construed as a rebellion against the dominant medico-scientific paradigm which reduces client symptomatology to problems and pathology (Cohen, 1999). The revival of the strengths perspective in social work originated at the University of Kansas. Saleeby (1992:171-172), a central figure in the Kansas group, described it as follows:

The strengths perspective obligates workers to understand that, however downtrodden or sick, individuals have survived (and in some cases even thrived). They have taken steps, summoned up resources and coped. We need to know what they have done, how they have done it, what they have learned from doing it, and what resources (inner and outer) were available in their struggle to surmount their troubles. People are always working on their situations, even if just deciding to be resigned to them; as helpers we must tap into that work, elucidate it, find and build on its possibilities.

Most certainly, identifying problems and needs in more objective and less judgmental terms and reinterpreting likely interventions in a positive way according to the strengths and resources people bring to the helping situation leads to a whole new language and more positive scenario. Consider the unmarried mother, a victim of rape, whose only income is a government pension. Here, in fact, we have a sole parent, receiving child support, who has survived rape. Whereas the medico-scientific model sees the deficit as the dominant identifying feature, the strengths perspective elevates the positive features of the situation. The first description is judgmental and demeaning, the second is empowering and uplifting. The first establishes a relationship with power invested in the therapist while the second sees therapy as a collaborative client-centred endeavour.

While not wanting to minimise the complex problems and severe trauma clients experience, somehow the strengths perspective makes improvement an ever present possibility. Labels stick to people like flies to fly paper. They follow them throughout their lives and stigmatise them in a disempowering way. The strengths perspective acknowledges the resilience of people, their ability to endure extreme hardship and to survive seemingly insurmountable problems. As Herman (1992) observed, there is sufficient evidence to show that enhanced resilience accompanies the scars of past trauma or hardship. The strengths perspective acknowledges this.

This paper describes the application of the strengths perspective within a Crime Reduction in Schools Project (CRISP) based at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa. It focuses particularly on the development of Family Resource Centres as a medium, not only for crime prevention, but also for building and capitalising on the collective resources of schools, the university, families, and communities.


Youth and crime

Escalating crime, violence and conflict at school has brought the issue of youth culpability for violence and crime to the fore. When children engage in crime and violence, or when they witness or experience crime as passive victims, who should bare the blame? Ultimately, it is society as a whole that must assume responsibility for young victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crime. Throughout the world, young people are confronted with violence and criminality, but the South African case is particularly severe. It is essential that children brought up in such an environment learn alternatives to criminal behaviour and the experience and expertise found in the university are uniquely suited to this task. A crime prevention programme targeted at youth can teach young people how to avoid becoming victims of crime, how to protect their communities from crime and how to cope with being victimised themselves. Young people are adversely affected by crime in three distinct but inter-related ways as:

  • Victims of crime
  • Perpetrators of crime
  • Witnesses of crime

Youth as victims

Young people are a group inherently subject to victimisation. Few crimes are recorded according to the age of the victim, but for those that are - sexual abuse of a minor and cruelty to children - South Africa maintains disturbingly high rates. It is also most likely that these offences are under-reported for a number of political and socio-cultural reasons. Violent crime disproportionately affects young people in South Africa.

The 1996 NEDCOR Report found that, of all crimes reported by young people, 59% of the incidents involved rape, 15% assault, and 10% violence and intimidation. According to this survey, children and teenagers were two and a half times more likely to be the victims of rape than adults. Young men were far more likely to be assaulted or murdered than their older counterparts. The province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and the Durban metropolitan area in particular, are a particularly hazardous environment in which to grow up. KwaZulu-Natal has reported the greatest number of murders in the country for every year since the 1994 election when South Africa became a democracy. It is second only to the Western Cape province in the number of drug-related offences. The legacy of political violence in KZN and the proliferation of weapons makes it one of the most dangerous places to live in the world.

The school environment itself has become problematic. A study by Griggs of the Independent Projects Trust (IPT, November 1997) revealed that nine out of ten secondary schools polled in the Durban area reported gang-related violence as the most pressing problem in their schools. Recognising the vulnerability of learners, local gangsters (often of school age themselves) target the schools and reduce them to a state of terror. It is thus appropriate that interventions be focused on the school environment, both as a gathering place for youth and as a scene of criminal behaviour.

Youth as perpetrators

It is generally acknowledged that young males are most at risk of becoming perpetrators of crime in South Africa. Males, from their teen years through to their early twenties, are responsible for the majority of violent crime internationally. The violence in our schools is exacerbated by the fact that many learners remain in secondary education well into their teens. In the transition to democracy, many of these young people were exposed to, or participated in, the violent aspects of the struggle for liberation and carried this burden into the school environment. Young people are over represented among the unemployed and unemployment has consistently been identified as the primary cause of crime by the afflicted communities themselves. The university is particularly well placed to present vocational and educational alternatives to youth at risk. In April 1997, the Westville Prison in Durban was housing 200 children. According to a senior researcher at the Child Rights Project at the University of the Western Cape, who has been monitoring the situation on behalf of the government, the situation there was becoming very dangerous. Clearly, alternatives to incarceration must be found for this population since prevention is better than cure and, in this context, is far less expensive overall. As high rates of recidivism suggest, it is a very difficult task to reform offenders once they have fallen into a lifestyle of crime. Therefore, the overall goal of crime prevention projects such as CRISP, is to intervene while young people are still in their formative years in an effort to break the cycle of crime and violence.

Youth as witnesses of crime

A study of 834 learners in three high schools in the Durban area was conducted to gain an understanding of the factors which contributed to levels of aggression among learners (Reid, Hunter, Clark & Collett van Rooyen, 1999). The researchers were particularly interested in delineating aspects of childhood life that might be targeted by violence intervention programmes in schools. It became clear that the issue of safety was related to levels of aggression. Learners who felt unsafe were more likely to carry weapons, feel angry and stay home from school and a relationship was noted between the school environment and feelings of security. Almost half the learners who witnessed other learners carrying weapons to school felt unsafe as compared to less than a third who had not witnessed this. Secondly, a link between victimization and the commission of crimes was noted. Learners who reported to be victims of crime claimed to participate in criminal activity at a higher rate than those who had never fallen victim to crime. Finally, it was shown that young people tended to emulate the violence they had witnessed in their environment. The learners in the study reported that they had witnessed crimes within their homes, communities and schools and it was found that a higher percentage of learners who had witnessed violence tended to commit similar acts of violence, than those who had not witnessed violence. Further, there was a strong statistical correlation between these three factors leading to the conclusion that:

  • Learners who witnessed crimes were more likely to perpetrate crimes than those who had not witnessed crimes.
  • Learners who reported falling victim to crime were more likely to commit offences than those who were not crime targets.
  • Learners who reported feeling unsafe in school exhibited more aggressive behaviour and fear than those who reported feeling safe in school did.


School violence has become synonymous with physical violence perpetrated by children within the school domain. Threats of violence and personal experiences with violence at school negatively affect learners and the educational process. Hence the high level of crime and violence being experienced in schools in Durban and its surrounding areas is a major concern, especially when viewed against the findings of the IPT survey that the incidence and severity of school violence is destroying basic environmental conditions required to provide an adequate education and could undermine many programmes aimed at upgrading our schools (p.1). This situation was exacerbated by inadequate security measures; an absence of counselling and other support programmes for learners; and parental indifference.

The Crime Reduction in Schools project (CRISP)

There is a great deal of literature to support the contention that violence and, therefore, crime prevention should begin with children and young people and that the school is the ideal locus for such programmes. CRISP aims to address the security situation in Durban schools by implementing and evaluating a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary intervention strategy. A model is being developed and evaluated in a pilot project which can then be implemented farther afield. It draws on the resources of the university and its student body. Several such partnership models exist outside of South Africa. Their main aim is to draw together the resources of the university, business, NGOs, and community groups into school-based projects. Among other things, these programmes offer a host of interventions for participants such as free health screening; job shadowing, mentors and tutors for older students; adult education and literacy training for parents and family members; case management services for learners and their families; and school-wide positive youth development activities. They call on students to mentor learners and to run programmes at project sites; on parents to become involved in their childrens education; and on business to donate equipment, supplies and resources to project schools. These programmes offer examples which could be applied to the goal of violence and crime prevention in schools since they address these problems holistically.


As discussed previously, our preliminary research informs us that those children who witness or experience crime are more likely to commit crime than those who do not and the literature confirms this. Hence the essential question facing those in crime prevention is: How do you break the cycle of crime and violence in society? There is some agreement that what is required is an integrated, holistic response that addresses the root cause of the problem (Podesta and Jones, 1992:334) and that early intervention and preventive approaches are required to break the cycle of young people adopting criminal behaviours (National Crime Prevention Report, 1999).

Addressing the root cause of the problem is a somewhat ambitious goal for crime prevention projects such as CRISP for this requires a national and perhaps even international response at the highest levels of government and policy-making. However, something can be done to ensure a continuum of services. At the primary, preventive or community level, programmes can be provided to ensure the development of positive relationships between young people and their families. At the secondary level, services can be targeted at young people at risk of involvement in crime and the third or tertiary level would involve policies and programmes aimed at dealing with young people already in trouble with the law. On surveying existing services, the most pressing need was for preventive services. Hence CRISP emerged as a developmental intervention research project which saw the potential of schools as the ideal locus for the development of whole, healthy individuals and families. From the start, it recognised the importance of the family in producing responsible citizens. Despite the fact that these families lived in communities where crime and violence were rife, it was believed that services could be provided to teach the value of a law abiding, crime free existence and ways in which to avoid falling into a life of crime.

Thus crime prevention is viewed in its broadest sense as a smorgasbord of programmes aimed at young people to teach them to face life's challenges armed with personal and social skills developed within the supportive and caring environment of the family and/or the school. Services at the secondary and tertiary level, although also performing a preventive function, were not viewed as part of our definition of primary prevention. One of the most effective mechanisms for primary prevention is to resource families through school-based Family Resource Centres.

The dilemma was that our research showed that many children experienced and witnessed crime within their families in the form of abusive relationships involving themselves and/or others in their families. For these children, the school offered a safe place where family problems could be addressed through Family Resource Centres. It was also abundantly clear from our Crimes I have seen Project that these children witnessed high levels of crime and violence in their communities. Also, prevailing attitudes within these communities reinforced the values and beliefs that crime was an acceptable form of survival. They legitimised and condoned certain criminal activities, such as kangaroo justice metered out to rapists and murderers, such was the loss of faith in the power of the police and courts to put a stop to crime and bring criminals to justice (Jarman, 1999). Even when criminals had been caught and imprisoned, they were very quickly back on the streets, once again perpetrating crime. Hence one could safely say that there was a breakdown of law and order which made the task of crime prevention even more difficult and challenging.

A final note on prevention is that it is extremely difficult to prove that a crime has been prevented. Thus it might be more correct to speak about projects aimed at crime reduction and it is this more realistic aspect that is reflected in the CRISP acronym of crime reduction in schools. The notion of reduction is powerful in its implication of the ability to react positively. Recognition is given to the resilience of children who witness or experience crime yet do not themselves become perpetrators. Thus, from a strengths perspective, the philosophy and motivation driving CRISPs research and interventions is a focus on the strengths, assets, skills, capacities, abilities, resilience and resources of participants.


A major aim of CRISP is the development of a model for crime prevention in schools. In so doing, its goal is to develop sustainable interventions in target schools, delivered through family resource centres, which build on family strengths and recognise the central role of the family in the development of strong, well-adjusted young people.

There are numerous examples of family strengths projects including the Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. Another is the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute in Boston, USA where John McKnight and John Kretzmann of North Western University spent several years documenting the success stories of communities devastated for various reasons. From their research, they developed the asset-based approach, the basis of which was the idea that all individuals, families and communities have strengths and that it is on these that they rebuild themselves. Social workers have known this for many years (Hollis, 1966; Perlman, 1957; Saleeby, 1992) but, along with universities, funders and governments, they still insist on concentrating on what is wrong with and missing in communities and design interventions to meet the community's needs supported by communities who know only too well that they must emphasise what they do not have to draw attention to their plight.

However, from a strengths perspective, Family Resource Centres are centres which capitalise on the resources which people collectively can muster. As community centres, they keep asset registers alongside their needs surveys. The assets-based approach is being used in the Bhambayi Community Project run by the Department of Social Work at the University of Natal. There the community development committee has compiled a skills register, that is, a list of what people in the community can do, so that when there is a building project, for example, they know exactly who the contractor can employ from within the community for specific jobs, like bricklaying and painting, before looking elsewhere to import the skill.

The asset-based approach does not deny that real problems and needs exist but chooses to focus rather on strengths, based on the belief that just as individuals achieve what they do by concentrating on using their talents, rather than spending all their time emphasising their deficits (which everyone has), so too do communities. Family or community resource centres, then, are places where community members come together to share their strengths and to find ways of recognising and expanding on opportunities. The deficit model has tended rather to see them as places from which social workers deliver services to 'disadvantaged', marginalised or poor communities.

Through its school-based Family Resource Centres, CRISP is campaigning against parental apathy and indifference, conducting research and offering programmes within schools with large numbers of at-risk children, such as individual, family and group counselling; health screenings and health education; referral services; parental support and education; mentoring and tutoring for children; professional development for school personnel; conflict management and diversity training workshops; and life skills programmes including positive communication, conflict resolution, drug awareness, AIDS awareness, pregnancy prevention, citizenship, community building, and career development. Its overall mission is to increase the number of urban youth who graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education by creating a system that embraces children from preschool to grade twelve; and to promote the value of education and citizenship for youth and families. Thus CRISP involves a number of interventions and research projects aimed at crime prevention in schools.

Table 1 outlines the intervention programmes implemented in the first phase of stage one over a six-month period. Table 2 provides a sample of the research projects which began with needs surveys in target schools in order to determine the types of interventions needed. Hence all the interventions shown in Table 1 arose from this preliminary research. The 'Crimes I have seen' project invited younger learners to draw their experiences of crime and older children to write essays about these. It revealed a wealth of disturbing data on the crimes children had witnessed and experienced (Leggett, 1999). Other research studies are examining prejudice and intolerance, gender conflict, AIDS awareness and sexual behaviour, levels of aggression and violence in schools as well as evaluating existing intervention programmes. The purpose of all the research projects is to inform interventions aimed at crime prevention within schools. To this extent, the research is developmental (Thomas, 1978, 1987, 1989, 1993 ).

Compiling the CRISP assets register

The process of compiling a CRISP assets register is ongoing and is by no means complete. It has and continues to proceed on a number of levels. Although I have presented these in sequential steps, they are inter-related and inter-dependent.

The first step in designing CRISP's intervention research programmes involved a determination of assets within the CADD faculty. Here the collective resources of staff and students were mustered together with the capacity and collective will of the University to support this initiative.

The second step was finding 'institutional resources' and obtaining funding via the Department of Arts, Science, Culture and Technology for the development of CRISP. The importance of this resource cannot be under-estimated and accounts for the depth and scale of the project.

The third step involved a survey of assets within the school system, in the target schools and the administration of education. Structures within the target schools included management and staff, learner and parent committees, and programmes and extra-mural activities offered within the schools.

Next is the building of relationships with community-based organisations such as IPT (already mentioned) and the Cato Manor Development Association (that being a large area adjacent to the University from which our target schools draw some of their learners).

Marshalling resources from the business community, though on a small scale at this stage, has contributed to the establishment of the Family Resource Centres through donations of paint and equipment.

Networking with other bodies both locally and internationally offering similar programmes has proved an invaluable resource. For example, exchange students from the University of Michigan conducted the study on levels of aggression in schools already reported on and contact with Jody (John) Kretzmann from the ABCD Institute already mentioned has yielded valuable resources and teaching materials.

Only a few examples of the partnerships and relationships established has been provided to illustrate the way in which CRISP is drawing on the collective resources of schools, the university, families, and communities in its determined aim to develop a holistic, integrated model for crime reduction and prevention in schools.


This paper has described an intervention research project aimed at developing a model for crime prevention in schools and the context in which it is taking place. It has focused specifically on the strengths perspective and its application within a holistic, multi-disciplinary programme which is developing family resource centres in participating schools as a way to ensure sustainable ongoing interventions among children and young people.