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 hears me.”

—Eliana Gil, Ph.D.,
registered Art and Play Therapist

The likelihood that today’s children will be exposed to some form of violence is enormous.
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 care—separated 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

There are many opportunities to intervene across the age span—it is never too early or too late.
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 interventions available.

There are many opportunities to intervene across the age span—it 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.

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 frowning.

—5-year-old boy

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.

—Shay Bilchik, Former Administrator,
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention; currently Executive Director,
Child Welfare League of America

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.

The Summit was, in effect, a demonstration of one of its own key recommendations: collaboration across disciplines.
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 agenda—for local, State, and national leaders; professionals across disciplines; communities; and parents, youth, and families—to 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.


Safe From the Start: Taking Action on Children Exposed to Violence
OJJDP Summary
November 2000