Recent Data on Juvenile Victimization

Although overall violent crime has decreased significantly since 1994, the data year referred to in the Action Plan, and continues to decline, juvenile crime and victimization both remain very serious problems. The definition of "victimization" in this Bulletin also includes children’s witnessing of and exposure to violence either in their communities or in their homes. Juveniles are twice as likely as adults to be victims of serious violent crime, and the victims include young children; 1 in 18 violent crime victims is under the age of 12 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000). In the majority of cases of juvenile victimization, the perpetrator is a family member or an acquaintance rather than a stranger, a statistic consistent with the findings of the Action Plan. This fact is particularly important in relation to the victimization of children in violent domestic situations, an area of growing concern and recognition in the violence prevention field (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000).

Violent Crime

In the United States, homicide is one of the leading causes of death for juveniles. The Action Plan estimated 2,000 children, most under age 4, are murdered by parents or caretakers each year; of the children in this group who are under age 12, the majority have been previously abused by the person who killed them (Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1996:75). More recent data show that the problems remain very serious. In 1998, the National Center for Health Statistics listed homicide as the third leading cause of death for children ages 1–4 and 5–14, and the second leading cause for persons 15–24 (Murphy, 2000:8). Of the 2,691 juvenile murder victims—an average of 7 per day—in 1998, 20 percent were under age 5 and 54 percent were between the ages of 17 and 19 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000:3; Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999:297). Thirty-two percent were female, and 44 percent were African American (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999:302). Sixty-two percent of all juvenile murder victims and 57 percent of murdered youth who were 13 or older were killed with a firearm (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999:297). Forty percent were killed by family members, 45 percent by acquaintances, and only 15 percent by strangers (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000). The older juvenile victims, compared with those under age 13, were more likely to be male and African American (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999:302). The younger victims were more likely to be killed by family members (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000). These statistics are consistent with data reported in the Action Plan, indicating that most child murders, especially of younger children, are committed by family members or acquaintances rather than strangers. Several of the programs described later in this Bulletin offer innovative approaches to preventing or intervening in violence by family members.

The statistics cited above reflect juvenile victimization that was reported to police. However, in 1996, approximately half of the serious violent victimization—including aggravated assault, murder, forcible rape, and robbery—of juveniles was not reported to police or other authorities (teachers, school principals) (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000:7). Violent crimes that occur in schools, those that result in injury, and those that involve an adult rather than a juvenile perpetrator are the most likely to be reported (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000:11). The programs described later in this Bulletin are working to address some of these key elements of juvenile victimization.

Child Abuse and Neglect

The following statistics on abused and neglected children will help practitioners quantify and plan strategies to combat child abuse and neglect. In 1999, child protective services agencies received reports on about 2.97 million allegedly maltreated children (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001), close to the 2.9 million that were reported in the Action Plan. The allegations in 28 percent of the 1999 reports were substantiated; of those substantiated reports, 52 percent of the victims were female (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Victimization rates varied by race and ethnicity. African American children had the highest rate of victimization (25.2 per 1,000), followed by Hispanics (12.6 per 1,000), whites (10.6 per 1,000), and Asian/Pacific Islanders (4.4 per 1,000) (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Children age 3 and younger had the highest rates of neglect (10.8 per 1,000 for boys and 10.3 per 1,000 for girls), but boys ages 4–11 had the highest rate of physical abuse (2.6 per 1,000). Girls were more likely to be sexually abused, with 12- to 15-year-olds in the most danger (2.8 per 1,000) (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Eighty-seven percent of the victims were maltreated by one or both parents; 44.7 percent of the substantiated cases involved a mother acting alone (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Children under age 6 accounted for 86 percent of fatalities caused by child abuse and neglect, with children less than a year old accounting for 43 percent (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).

To understand the effects of victimization, it is important to consider the risk factors that can lead to problem behaviors. For example, in a prospective study that followed a group of abused and neglected children (908 in the treatment group compared with 667 in the control group, who had not been abused and neglected), Kaufman and Widom (1999) reported that being abused or neglected in childhood increased the likelihood that a youth would run away from home, which, in turn, increased the risk for juvenile arrest. The abused and neglected group completed fewer years of schooling and scored significantly lower than the control group on intellectual functioning, irrespective of age, sex, race, and criminal history. Significantly more members of the abused and neglected group held menial and semiskilled jobs, and they were more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than the members of the control group, who were more likely to be skilled workers and professionals. As a result, members of the treatment group had lower earning potential. In their personal lives, victims of child abuse and neglect also suffered greater marital instability and had a higher incidence of separation and divorce than members of the control group. The results of Kaufman and Widom’s study show the long-term effects of childhood victimization and highlight the importance of efforts to prevent it.

Witnessing Violence

A major advance in addressing children’s exposure to violence and victimization in the past 5 years has come from an expanded awareness and understanding of children as witnesses to violence, especially domestic violence. The Packard Foundation recently published a comprehensive volume, Domestic Violence and Children,2 that highlights important recent work in the field of domestic violence and offers a comprehensive perspective on many of the important issues faced by children who are exposed to domestic violence. While efforts to develop prevention, advocacy, and support programs for adult victims have increased, much less attention has been paid to children, who are often considered "invisible victims."

Both research and clinical work have shown that witnessing community and domestic violence has a consistently negative impact on children’s emotional, social, and cognitive development, although it affects children of different ages in different ways. The effects of witnessing domestic violence, which affects a child’s trusting relationships, can be especially severe. Even in the earliest phases of development, infants and toddlers exhibit clear associations between exposure to violence and emotional and behavioral problems (Dell, Siegel, and Gaensbauer, 1993; Osofsky and Fenichel, 1999).

How witnessing violence affects children and their ability to cope depends on many risk and protective factors, including individual characteristics (such as the temperament and resilience of the children) and family support issues (such as their parents’ ability to support them and help them deal with the trauma). When parents witness violence or are victims of violence themselves, they are more likely to have difficulty being emotionally available to their children. They may become depressed and unable to provide for their children’s needs.


Addressing Youth Victimization OJJDP Action Plan Update • October 2001