WEST JORDAN — Preventative measures and patience are the preferred tactics for increasing Salt Lake County's social health, according to local health and social science officials.
"There are a lot of things that take place in Salt Lake County, and a lot of committed people, yet so much more could be done if we were connecting, collaborating. Everybody realizes that," said Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.
The Building Healthy Communities: Be the Connection Conference, held Wednesday at the Viridian Event Center, focused on bringing members of the public and private sectors together to learn about successful programs and strategies being implemented to improve the health of the Salt Lake region.
"This is really an exciting time to be engaged in social services and building healthy communities. That's because we can create really sophisticated scientific understanding of some social problems," said Jeremy Keele, executive director of Policy Innovation Lab, a global investment center at University of Utah.
At one point, people believed the solution to homelessness was simple: Provide a home, Keele said. Today, social scientists know homelessness is a byproduct of complex social problems, and they can create more efficient solutions to address the issue.
Keele asserts that as more knowledge is discovered about social services through experiments, communities can better implement preventative programs.
One social issue area emphasized during a session at the conference was teen pregnancy.
"Typically, an adolescent sees a provider 14 months after being sexually active, usually to get a pregnancy test," said Annabel Sheinberg, education director for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.
While teen pregnancy is low in Utah, neighborhoods in Salt Lake County have proportionately higher rates of teen pregnancies than other counties in the state, Sheinberg said. Within Salt Lake County, Latino teens have a higher pregnancy rate than teens of any other race, she said.
Additionally, more teens ages 14-18 in Utah report relationship violence than any other state, and sexually transmitted infections are on the rise, Sheinberg said.
Preventative programs currently in place for teen pregnancy include parent-training programs that inform parents how to teach their children about sex in a manner that is tailored to their culture and religion.
For teens who have children, the program Teen Success educates girls to help them make decisions that prevent a second pregnancy. The Planned Parenthood program also focuses on how to raise children healthily while encouraging participants to continue their educations.
"We have a 98 percent success rate in preventing a repeat teen pregnancy among active members," said Stephanie Croasdell, a research associate at Intermountain Healthcare, about Teen Success.
Social scientists have also started to create preventative care that extends to costlier social issues.
"Somebody just doesn't pop out of the womb, predestined to end up in jail," said Keele, noting that there are several experiences where intervention can make the difference in at-risk individuals.
A byproduct of a hands-off government, he said, is that the government will only get involved in social issues after no one else will deal with them, making the government a provider of "last-resort" solutions such as prisons and homeless shelters.
Keele suggests that communities keep the same amount of government intervention, but place emphasis in early stage intervention. However, increasing preventative programs in a community is both complicated and time-consuming, he said.
"Government budgets are so tight right now … that it doesn't have the money to pay for the more innovative stuff that we know works," Keele said.
Financial solutions to this problem include "pay for success" programs, where private organizations become philanthropists by fronting funds to pay for social programs, he said. If the policy proves to be successful, the government then pays a contracted amount back to the company using money saved by not having to use funds for remedial purposes.
The downside to these types of programs is that social policy experiments take years to yield results, Keele explained, because results revolve around human development.
Regardless, active community members are optimistic that positive changes can be made in the social service sector.
"This is a great place," Edwards said of Salt Lake County. "There are really committed and dedicated people. It's not just agency people; it's the volunteers that are supportive. So I'm confident we can continue to move the needle and become a healthier county as we continue to come together and share expertise and resources."