Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Work


Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work

First Advisor

Anne Westhues

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor


Keeping Kids Safe (KKS) is a study that presents an integrated model to demonstrate that the interaction between the predisposition of the youth and the institutional environment acts to promote or deter safety among incarcerated youth. The study illustrates that the peer subculture that produces a spectrum of violence within the institution is dependent on both the extra-custody attributes of the youth that affect his attitudes, beliefs and behaviours and on the critical influence of institutional attributes like program resources, staff/youth interactions and practices of social control. A predisposition that includes child maltreatment and exposure to domestic violence was used as the clarifying example that brought the model to life. Coping strategies used by youth to ameliorate or manage peer aggression in the institutions were examined.

The KKS study utilized a mixed methods triangulation design and through self reports by youth consumers of service, offers valuable insight into the lived experience of youth who were residing in four secure custody facilities in Canada. Two sets of sites were designated Safer and Less Safe based on institutional safety as perceived by the youth. A variation in culture across the two institutional types was evidenced through the description of peer harassment and aggression and the concomitant coping strategies used by youth to manage the milieu. Further analysis of the data according to the youth's involvement in the child welfare and youth justice systems was undertaken.

Key findings that emerged from this study were: The imported risk factors of an adverse family history of child maltreatment and exposure to domestic violence, combined with an early and protracted history of incarceration in the youth justice system set the stage for a continuum of peer aggression within the youth justice institutions studied. This finding confirms the integrated model for understanding violence among incarcerated youth. Furthermore, coping strategies which served to ameliorate or manage the impact of peer aggression were directly aligned with the adaptive responses of youth who struggle with a history of child maltreatment or exposure to domestic violence. Youth imported these entrenched response patterns of internalizing symptomology, externalizing behaviours and relational difficulties into the institutional milieu. Nonetheless, the protective features of the institutional environment and the role played by staff served to mediate the prevalence and impact of peer aggression.

Youth participants reinforced that violence begins in the family and without appropriate recognition and intervention can be perpetuated in societal institutions. Accordingly, recommendations for research, policy and practice are offered.

Convocation Year


Included in

Social Work Commons