As J.J. Cutuli explains, his work is a “two-way street.”
In one respect, he is the one learning from children and families who experience high levels of adversity, such as homelessness, maltreatment, and poverty, and those who strive to meet the needs of these families every day, says the assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden. At the same time, he is also serving as a “humble conduit,” he says, trying to help bring the accumulated knowledge of developmental science to bear on today’s problems.
“Scientists and researchers have been studying the developmental processes of resilience and risk for decades, building a wealth of useful knowledge,” says Cutuli. “We’re on the shoulders of giants.”
Cutuli is part of a broader movement of academics in the area looking to bridge the gaps between the accumulated knowledge of academia, and policy and practice decision-making. He will now focus on these issues as a visiting scholar for the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) in West Philadelphia. The visiting scholars program brings together academically talented researchers, and establishes a network of public and nonprofit agencies, to assist PEC in its mission to provide comprehensive support services for women and children who are experiencing homelessness, revitalize the West Philadelphia neighborhood, and advocate for social justice.
Consistent with his engaged approach, Cutuli works collaboratively with both families experiencing homelessness and service providers to understand what the important questions are with respect to the families’ needs and how programs meet – or might better meet – these needs.
“A lot of what I do is listen to what families, providers, and decision makers say is working, and what is not,” says Cutuli, a native of Havertown who currently resides in Bala Cynwyd, just a short distance from the West Philadelphia emergency shelters where much of his current work is ongoing. “It is all about forming partnerships to gather and explore information together, and my expertise is to apply rigorous, systematic methods to this information gathering so that we can have confidence in our conclusions.”
“What is special about the visiting scholars program is the context in which this dialogue can occur,” adds Cutuli. “It’s a way to engage providers on the questions they have about the services they provide and the families that they serve.”
Cutuli likens it to an approach that was more common in past generations, when academics were engaged in solving social problems beyond simply generating academic knowledge. Among his current objectives, he is helping to establish a consortium focused on youth homelessness, and working with these collaborators to utilize the youth risk behavior survey (YRBS) in order to identify youth homelessness – a challenge for providers and policymakers – and assess the associated risks and challenges.
“Even identifying how many youth experience homelessness is a big challenge in itself, let alone what their needs are and what their experiences are like,” notes Cutuli. “As you can imagine, many don’t like to stand up and be counted.”
Other goals are not as quantifiable, but just as crucial, he notes, such as helping to facilitate and strengthen community partnerships. “It’s not only about forming relationships with more partners, but a deepening of the relationships with these partners,” says Cutuli, who previously volunteered with PEC through The Homeless Health Initiative of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Cutuli believes that the position will also inform his own research by opening the door to greater input from service providers and community partners, as well as to a greater understanding of the real-life challenges, barriers, problems, and points of view of families experiencing adversity. The experience will thus broaden his perspective, he says, to the developmental processes of resilience for children and families facing adversity.
“There are many instances in which we can better understand developmental science by seeing how children and families adapt to difficult situations in the real world,” says Cutuli, who earned a doctorate from the University of Minnesota as a National Institute of Mental Health fellow with dual training in child development and clinical psychology. “There is also a lot that we can learn about these processes that we couldn’t otherwise learn without these collaborations and partnerships.”
Cutuli adds that Rutgers–Camden students are actively engaged in his work as a visiting scholar, assisting with data collection with families, partnership building, and volunteering in the community. Students volunteer and interact with families beyond their roles as research assistants. “This is a service not only for the families, but for the students as well, to help them understand the broader context of emergency housing and how families are being helped,” he says.