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INNOVATORS Q&A

Helping young women in the juvenile justice system avoid violent relationships

Lifespan researcher and Northeastern professor Dr. Christie Rizzo developed the Date SMART program, which uses techniques to help teens build skills necessary for healthy relationships

Dr. Christie Rizzo is a researcher at Lifespan and professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University.
Dr. Christie Rizzo is a researcher at Lifespan and professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University.Bill Murphy / Lifespan

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at alexa.gagosz@globe.com.

Dr. Christie Rizzo has a particular interest in developing effective prevention programs for young people. A clinical psychologist, researcher at Lifespan Corporation, and professor at Northeastern University, her interest in studying dating violence emerged from her clinical work treating adolescents with mental health symptoms in hospitals and juvenile justice settings, as well as in her research linking mental health and romantic relationships.

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In her latest effort, she is examining potential solutions on how to reduce dating violence among young women involved with the Rhode Island Family Court. She told the Globe that she hopes that the program she developed, called “Date SMART,” which is being used in this research, will eventually reach other juvenile justice agencies nationwide.

Q: Please briefly explain what the Date SMART program is?

Rizzo: Date SMART is a group-based prevention program that I developed through a research study with girls from Rhode Island high schools and am now testing in a larger trial with girls identified through the Rhode Island Family Court. Both of these projects were funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The Date SMART program is designed to reduce both dating violence and sexual risk behaviors among adolescent females. The program is unique in that it uses cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques to help teens build skills that research has shown are necessary for healthy relationships. These include strategies for managing emotions, communicating effectively, selecting healthy partners, and reducing mental health symptoms such as depression.

Q: Who is involved with your latest study?

Rizzo: The current study is a randomized controlled trial comparing the Date SMART program to an educational program focused on health. Two-hundred and fifty girls involved with the Rhode Island Family Court participated in the study and were followed for one year to assess changes in dating violence, delinquency, and sexual risk taking. We hypothesized that our Date SMART program would be more effective than a traditional educational program in helping girls in the juvenile justice system reduce their risk behaviors.

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Q: Talk me through the screening process.

Rizzo: One of the goals of this Date SMART study is to test the program in a real-world environment rather than a more controlled setting that is typical of a clinical trial. This is because we want to show that the Date SMART program has a positive impact on girls’ behaviors when the program is delivered by court personnel in the family court setting, rather than by clinicians in a lab environment. For this reason, there is no screening process for study participation.

Any girls involved in the family court, between the ages of 14-18 and English speaking, were eligible to participate. Since the program is prevention, girls did not need to have a history of dating violence to participate.

Q: Why are you focused on teens in the juvenile justice system?

Rizzo: Studies suggest that about half of females in the juvenile justice system have histories of serious physical or sexual violence in dating relationships. We also know that these young women often possess other risk factors such as exposure to childhood adversity and experiences with mental health symptoms that may be linked to their dating violence experiences.

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Q: How could programs like Date SMART help prevent dating violence?

Rizzo: One of the benefits of delivering prevention programs like Date SMART to adolescents in family courts is that there is a growing recognition that skills-based interventions can not only help teens reduce risk behaviors, such as dating violence, but also reduce their likelihood of continued involvement in the justice system. This is because the risk behaviors themselves are often linked to the teen’s offending.

For example, dating violence directly impacts the number of juveniles approaching the court for protective orders and involves behaviors that may lead to juvenile arrests. So, skills-based prevention programs may not only help teens reduce health risks, but also reduce their involvement in the justice system.

Q: You completed the study in summer 2020 and are now evaluating the impact of Date SMART. What are you finding so far?

Rizzo: Our research confirms that dating violence experiences are highly prevalent among girls involved with the Rhode Island Family Court. Preliminary findings also suggest that our Date SMART program reduced physical and sexual violence perpetration and victimization among girls at the Family Court with dating violence histories. This pattern is consistent with our earlier research of the program with high school girls.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.