This new series – which collects insights from social service research – stems from both personal interest and ambition, to strengthen my research methods and my existing contributions to non-profit organisations, and to further contribute as a volunteer or as a researcher in the future. I will start with papers from Asia and Singapore, before moving on to other papers around the world.
“Moving Targets: The Practice and Evaluation of Street Outreach for At-Risk Youths in Singapore” – published by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in Singapore, and prepared by Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the National University of Singapore – is an evaluation report for a service pilot of a new street outreach programme, known as the Youth GO! Programme (YGP). The YGP was launched by the Central Youth Guidance Office (CYGO), an inter-ministry unit concerned with youth delinquency and crime, and a key objective was to conduct research on evidence-based programmes for at-risk youths between the ages of 12 and 21. At-risk youths in Singapore, as defined previously by the MSF, are usually subject to a combination of interrelated biological, psychological, and social factors which explains their behaviour.
I summarised the research through five broad questions:
What is the YGP?
Traditional services and programmes for at-risk youths in Singapore are conventional and agency-based; that is, persons usually identify themselves as clients from the get-go when they step into an agency, or if they are referred by another service provider (page 17). With the YGP, on the other hand, two groups of social workers from two voluntary welfare organisations – over a two-year period – were tasked to conduct street rounds on foot to recruit the youths. Street outreach in general “refers to services that locate street-involved youths within their environment and connect them to the interventions they require” (page 9), and in the context of Singapore some of the harmful lifestyles and forms of social instability include: running away from home, unstable living arrangements, and incidents of street violence.
Youth outreach was contrasted with case management programmes, drop-in centres, as well as befriending and mentoring arrangements for at-risk youths in Singapore, across criteria such as client selection, service objectives, and service setting.
What was the service model of the YGP?
There were three main strategies: first, outreach, by visiting neighbourhoods and making contact with the youths; second, casework and intervention, by building a closer working relationship; and third, service coordination, by reaching out to the other organisations in the community. In its implementation, the two teams – each with eight members, “a mix of social workers and counsellors focused on therapeutic engagement and case management [and] providing clinical supervision” (page 16) – made afternoon rounds earlier in the week, before the evening and night rounds on Thursdays and Fridays. This aligned with school schedules and police patrols.
Experience from Hong Kong was useful in two aspects. It was observed in the city that in 2013, 180 workers in 16 teams covered the day shift from 10am to 10pm, and 80 workers in 18 teams worked the night shift from 10pm to 6am (pages 13 and 14), thereby providing some background knowledge. In a more direct fashion, CYGO arranged for clinical supervision by an experienced street outreach practitioner from Hong Kong, which “was critical in building up the outreach teams’ engagement skills” (page 20).
How was it implemented in Singapore?
Implementation in Singapore was defined by a five-stage practice model: observation, initial contact, positive engagement, therapeutic engagement, and termination. The first stage of locating and identifying potential clients proved to be the most challenging, because – beyond “the scaffold of professional social intervention” (page 18) – there is no structure, and “the outreach workers need to be exceptionally skilful at combining observation, listening, careful questioning, and well-paced engagement in order to gather information, recognise possible risks, build rapport with potential clients, and eventually progress to a working relationship with specific individuals” (page 18). Even the most seasoned social worker, when faced with these tasks, will need time to adjust.
In addition to the clinical supervision, as aforementioned, the two teams had to learn and innovate. Some of the innovations include mnemonics to aid observation, recognition of more likely youths, the use of engagement tools such as card games, the keeping records of profiles and needs, pacing their engagement with the youths, and finding success with a membership system.
How was it evaluated? Was the programme effective?
Evaluations methods – an RCT, community surveys, changes in general levels of crime, and the use of output indicators – were limited by administrative and practical problems. In other words, a causal effect of the YGP cannot be ascertained, and likewise it cannot be determined with confidence that the programme was effective. The publication gave a brief summary of the evaluation findings (page 29), which included the numbers of hours and observations, the demographic distribution of the youths, and basic background information of known youths, yet the evaluation plan of focusing on process data was still constrained by the same difficulties.
Are there any future plans?
There have been further developments with the YGP, but the evaluation model warrants more attention (page 32):
“In evaluation, a new phase of data collection has been launched with several important changes. In addition to service data provided by the staff, the evaluation will now also collect information directly from the youths, through in-depth interviews with a small sample to understand individual-level programme impact, and a large-scale two-wave brief survey of all the youths engaged by the workers to be conducted on the streets. In combination, these data will provide a more comprehensive picture of the YGP and its outcomes, especially in terms of risk reduction” (emphases mine).