By Tim Brady
A new, large-scale project in the Department of Sociology looks at how young adults fare once they leave an institutional setting
Shelly Schaefer says it was serendipity that brought her to Chaplain John Morris of the Minnesota Army National Guard in the fall of 2006. “Finally, I’d found someone who could help me," she says. Schaefer, a graduate student in sociology, was working as a research assistant on the early stages of a major new department project, Exits and Entries. The project is designed to examine groups of young adults who are transitioning from an institutional setting back into the community, to see how they fare after being out of circulation for an extended period of time.
One of the cohorts being considered for research was members of the Minnesota National Guard who were soon to return home from Iraq. Schaefer’s problem was that she had no idea who could help connect the department and the guard and make things happen. Then someone suggested that she call Morris. Bingo! “It turned out that he was looking for someone to do precisely what we wanted to do,"says Schaefer.
Morris, a lieutenant colonel who has headed the Minnesota Guard’s re-entry efforts for the past three years, is passionate in his advocacy for the returning vets. “We have been sending people to war for millennia," he says, “but we have never before helped our warriors adapt back to civilian life once they return." Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, the Guard reintegration program, is a three-pronged strategy for aiding soldiers coming home. It is designed to train community leaders in the needs of their returning vets; to help support the families of those soldiers in the transition; and to provide a variety of training opportunities for the guardspeople themselves. “What we didn’t have," says Morris, “is any way to study the effectiveness of what we were doing."
Enter the University’s Department of Sociology and its newly launched Exits and Entries project. “We want to make sure that what we’re doing is working," says Morris. “The University of Minnesota program is going to help us make sure we’re on the right track."
A Project is BornThe idea of an aftercare program that would examine the effectiveness of young adult reintegration did not initially involve the Guard. When professors Chris Uggen (Right) and Candace Kruttschnitt first envisioned the project, their focus was on young prisoners released from Minnesota penal institutions back into society. The state of Minnesota, among other parties, was keenly interested in the project. How and what were these people doing following release? How could their transitions be better assisted? “We wanted to serve Minnesota communities in our continuing role as a public-oriented department at a public research university," says Uggen.
They also wanted to break new ground. The new project was inspired in part by the success of the American Mosaic Project, which was launched in the department in 2001 to examine attitudes toward race and religion across the nation. No one knew of a similar project anywhere in the country. A sense began to build that, in Schaefer’s words, “Hey, we could really do something unique here."
Schaefer, who was hired in the project’s early days to review the literature on prisoner re-entry, discovered that a number of studies had already been done on the subject. Uggen and Kruttschnitt decided that a more comprehensive program was in order, and so they put out a call within the department, asking for ideas. Before long, a diverse group of interested faculty members began meeting to develop a plan for an expanded project that would eventually focus on six domains.
Teresa Swartz (Left), an assistant professor who had worked as a foster care social worker in Los Angeles — and had written her dissertation on California’s foster care system — proposed that the study include young people exiting foster care programs. In researching the relationships between young adults and their parents, Swartz had found that “for a lot of people, parental help doesn’t stop at 18"; a surprising number of young adults maintain remarkably close ties to their parents well into their 20s, even into their 30s. Those ties offer a powerful emotional and economic safety net: “These young people often get their education paid for; some continue to receive money from their parents after graduation from college; and, of course, there is usually a great deal of emotional support," Swartz explains. “By contrast, young adults leaving foster care simply don’t have those advantages and opportunities. When they’re emancipated [from foster care, most at 18], they’re almost always on their own with no net. So who is keeping track of them?"
As still other populations were identified, more sociology faculty members came on board. When all was said and done, the project comprised six “domains," all with principal investigator(s): Swartz would lead on the foster care study; Carl Malmquist, former mental health patients; Uggen and Kruttschnitt, former adult prisoners; Josh Page, individuals leaving the state’s juvenile justice system; Uggen, people undergoing drug treatment/rehab; and Ross Macmillan (Right) and Jeylan Mortimer, returning military personnel.
From the outset, the project was targeted at young people between 18 and 25 who have been removed from the community for 60 days or more. The focus of the research would be on their entry or re-entry into the general population following their exit from one of the six institutional settings. The rationale for selecting that age group is that the years from 18 to 25 are a crucial time for young adults. That’s when many form families, establish households, and develop careers. The study’s breadth offered researchers an opportunity to compare diverse settings and identify particularly vulnerable groups — those whose return to the community would be more difficult.
Engaging students as research partnersFrom its earliest days, Exits and Entries was viewed as an opportunity for sociology students to learn and to gain experience in research practice and methodology. Beginning in October 2006, graduate students with an interest in one of the six research areas convened with faculty members to help define goals and expectations for the project and to develop core and domain-specific questions for the interviews.
Jeanette Hussemann, a graduate student in criminology, notes that one important consideration was “how to expand the project from a single domain into the multiple areas that we were now planning to cover. What kinds of questions should we be asking for each of the different populations? How do we begin? What are we searching for?"
“We had meetings and more meetings," says student Arturo Baiocchi, who, like Swartz, had worked in foster care in California. “I came on board right as we were discussing what the interviews should be like. We started looking at how other researchers had structured survey questions and began by deconstructing those efforts."
Laying out the processAs outlined in the proposal, an initial round of 40 individual interviews would be conducted in each of the six domains as the subjects were preparing to leave their respective institutions. A second interview would follow 90 days after their departure. The research would involve a high degree of qualitative work — including the interviews themselves and compilation and interpretation of results.
It was clear early on that participating graduate students would need some training. And so Swartz taught a spring 2007 seminar to ground those students in research methodology, in-depth interviewing techniques, and project structure.
“[Exits and Entries] existed at a theoretical level, and [Swartz] helped us get it back to earth, creating objectives and a time line for the research," says Hussemann. Baiocchi notes that, while the class focused on this project, it also “brought to light broader issues of research and process that have been extremely helpful to us as graduate students."
As the summer approached, students were paired with faculty members in the various domains. They also would cross the lines between domains, broadening their perspectives on the larger issues of exit and entry. Baiocchi, for example, would not only work in foster care but also interview returning guards and young adults leaving the corrections system. Hussemann and Schaefer would likewise be multitasking, as would graduate students Dan Winchester (sociology), Sarah Shannon (social work), and Tom Walton (anthropology).
For faculty and graduate students alike, there has been a learning curve. “There are sensitivities that have to be observed for each domain," says Chris Uggen. “We needed to learn, for instance, that many members of the National Guard really don’t like the phrase ‘citizen soldiers.’ Also, you don’t say that they were ‘released from the military.’ They’re ‘standing down.’"
The Guard comes homeAn important part of the process was to develop and cultivate partnerships with the many state and local agencies that would be conduits to the young adults being studied. But finding the right people and obtaining the necessary permissions was a challenge. That’s one of the reasons Shelly Schaefer was so grateful to find Chaplain John Morris, someone who could steer her through the thicket of National Guard bureaucracy. “Not only could he really help us, he wanted to do what we wanted to do," she says. “Before that, it was like ‘Oh, you need to talk to so and so, and so and so.’ I was working with the lights out."
With Morris’s assistance, the first rounds of interviews for military personnel were conducted at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin in late June 2007. Baiocchi and Hussemann accompanied Macmillan to the base, where they met with members of the famed Red Bull Brigade, which includes Guard members from Minnesota, Kentucky, Washington, and Nebraska. They mostly talked with the Minnesota vets, who were returning from the longest duty of any unit in the Iraq war — 22 months, 16 of them in combat zones. (The Minnesota units of the brigade had served longer in combat posts than any state soldiers since World War II.)
Going into the sessions, the researchers were nervous. They were sensitive to the perceptions of the soldiers and feared that they might be seen as interlopers. “These are people who have just been to war, and we were strangers with questions," says Macmillan, who oversaw the interviews. “They had just arrived at Fort McCoy. They were having a going-away party that had just begun. At 3:45 the next morning, they would be climbing aboard a bus that would take them home. We were pulling them away from that to ask questions, and yet they were incredibly generous with us."
The initial round of interviews focused on getting the soldiers to open up to the process. It turned out to be an easier task than the interviewers had imagined. “Once they realized that we weren’t interested in asking them about the conflict, but about their lives and what they were going to do now that they were home, they really opened up," says Hussemann.
“They actually appreciated the opportunity to talk to someone," adds Macmillan. “They had obviously just gone through an enormously life-altering time, but I think they recognized the importance of what we were doing."
The research team came away from the experience with the first 17 interviews of the project and a deep appreciation for the work of their subjects. A second round of interviews with the National Guard members was scheduled for Fort Ripley in December. The process of transcribing and coding the interviews is well under way, as is the process of interpreting the data. But findings are well down the road.
Sociology that mattersMeanwhile, interviews are under way in the other domains. Swartz has been working with staff from the Hennepin County foster care program to identify interview subjects, and graduate students in the corrections domain have begun interviewing young people who are about to leave the Plymouth Workplace, a Hennepin County facility.
Participants and their colleagues and community partners have high hopes that advancing knowledge of the re-entry process will smooth the transition of some of society’s most vulnerable young people into the adult world.
So far, funding has come primarily from the state. External funding will be needed to continue the project beyond the qualitative research phase, which should be completed in 2008.
“This project has great potential," says Uggen. “It not only represents cutting-edge research, but also demonstrates the importance of a public research university. We’re creating partnerships with organizations and institutions that we haven’t partnered with before. The collaborative nature of the project makes a great teaching experience. We’re giving grad students a look behind the curtain. This is sociology that matters."