Setting the Stage: The Origins of
“Safe From the Start”
The stakes are high . . .
I’ve never forgotten this child, because when I asked her to tell
me about her picture, she said: “I’m screaming and no one
—Eliana Gil, Ph.D.,
registered Art and Play Therapist
Every day, there are reports about violence in communities and families
and about the children who are either the victims of or witnesses to it. Children
encounter violence in the streets, at school, and in their own homes. They are
bombarded by images of violence on television, in movies, and in video games.
In short, the likelihood that today’s children will be exposed to some form of
violence is enormous. Tragically, too many children never experience a basic
level of physical and emotional safety.
What happens to these children? In the short term, exposure to violence can result
in the total upheaval of a child’s life. First, there is the pain and suffering
that comes from being abused or seeing a parent, another loved one, or a friend
or an acquaintance hurt. Caregivers, parents, and professionals may disbelieve a
child’s account of violence experienced or witnessed, minimize the violence,
or withdraw affection from the child. The child may be threatened with further
harm or with harm to a loved one. If the report of abuse is not properly documented,
nothing may be done about the abuse. Alternatively, a suspected abuser
may be arrested, but then havoc may arise in the family, including loss of financial
support and recriminations from family members. Children may be removed
from the home and placed in foster careseparated from their family,
friends, pets, and school.
What happens next? Children exposed to violence often experience heightened
levels of depression and feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety, fear,
rage, and aggression. They can have great difficulty making friends and sustaining
relationships, accomplishing developmental tasks, and participating in everyday
activities like school and play.
What awaits these children in the future? In many cases, they imitate what
they have experienced: children exposed to violence are at greater risk of becoming
offenders themselves. The Nation is facing the consequences of previous
inadequate investments to protect its children. Childhood experiences
affect a lifetime, and too many youth are reenacting the violence they have
experienced, damaging their lives and the lives of others through criminal violence.
There are also, of course, enormous consequences for those children who do not become violent offenders: many experience difficulties in school, at work, and in relationships; have physical and mental health problems; and may be at risk of being revictimized by violence throughout their lives. Thus, every day that society fails to address this tragedy increases the suffering of future generations.
. . . But success is possible by taking action
|The likelihood that
today’s children will be exposed to some form of violence is enormous.
Most children are remarkably resilient. This means that the way society understands
and responds to the violence children experience can determine its impact
on their lives in the long run. The term “children exposed to violence” can
mean a number of things: experiencing physical or sexual abuse or neglect by a
parent or caretaker, being assaulted by an acquaintance or stranger, or witnessing
violence at home or at the home of a friend, at school, in the community, or
through the media. The impact of these different kinds of violence varies greatly
and depends on a number of factors, such as frequency, predictability, the age
of the child, and the nature of the relationship between the perpetrator and the
child. This variability, in turn, requires flexibility in the type and depth of
There are many opportunities to intervene across the age spanit is never too early
or too late. Prevention strategies can reduce the incidence of trauma. Providing early
treatment that is appropriate to children’s needs can help them begin to heal. Bringing
perpetrators of violence to justice supports efforts to prevent and treat abuse and
sends a clear message about the consequences of future violence. Professionals of
all kinds have the power to respond effectively and sensitively and to work together.
The means to meet this challenge exist, and the challenge must be met.
|There are many
opportunities to intervene across the age spanit is never too early or too late.
My dad was chasing my mom around the house with a knife.
He was smiling. He hit my mom with a knife and he started
Safe From the Start: The National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence
These children are the reason we are here . . . not just to talk
about the problems, and not just to preach to the choir, but to
galvanize the knowledge and skills we have garnered over the
decades in working with young people and families . . . if we
want to see a movement catch fire, then it will be up to us to set
it on fire with our passion and our commitment.
For 3 days in June 1999, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Health and Human
Services (HHS), with the leadership of U.S. Deputy Attorney General Eric
Holder, convened a summit of 150 practitioners and policymakers to build on
their commitment to a common goal, think through the problem of children
exposed to violence, and create a framework for a national blueprint for action.
—Shay Bilchik, Former Administrator,
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention; currently Executive Director,
Child Welfare League of America
Summit participants included many of the Nation’s leaders in analyzing how to help
children and in making solutions a reality. Professionals from both the public and
private sectors joined together, representing child protective services; domestic violence
services and advocacy; juvenile and family courts; law enforcement and prosecution;
mental health, substance abuse, and healthcare services; family violence
prevention services; childhood education and services; and State legislatures. Participants
also included members of the National Advisory Council on Violence
Against Women chaired by Attorney General Janet Reno and HHS Secretary
Donna E. Shalala. With such a diverse group of professionals, the Summit was, in
effect, a demonstration of one of its own key recommendations: collaboration across
disciplines. Participants worked to find common ground across their different professional
vocabularies, assumptions about the nature of the problem, and views on
the solutions. In the end, the National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence,
also known as the Safe From the Start Summit, provided the opportunity to learn
from participants’ experience and expertise and to craft a set of key operating principles
and concrete steps: a practical action agendafor local, State, and national
leaders; professionals across disciplines; communities; and parents,
youth, and familiesto help prevent and reduce the impact of children’s
exposure to violence.
This Action Plan integrates the most up-to-date data on children exposed to violence
with the key elements of known best practices. It suggests both discipline-specific
and general action steps. It also identifies resources for additional information.
|The Summit was,
in effect, a demonstration of one of its own key recommendations:
|Safe From the Start: Taking Action on Children Exposed to Violence
| November 2000