A Framework for Understanding and Addressing Children’s Exposure to Violence
I thought that it was my fault . . . that I was doing something wrong and that’s why I would get in trouble if I talked about it.Efforts to address children’s exposure to violence must incorporate a number of key elements. They must:
Professionals and citizens must commit to doing things differently. If the ledger is not shifted so that more resources are spent on prevention, communities always will be cleaning up afterwards. If the justice system does not take the victimization of children seriously, how can it ask communities to do so? If professionals do not help battered women develop safety strategies and find necessary support services, how can they help the children of these women be safe and healthy? If children are not consistently viewed within the context of family, how can families be expected to succeed? How can those in need operate within and between systems that are not comprehensive and do not work together?
Finally, there must be a commitment from professionals to keep children and their voices at the core of this work. This means being able and willing to listen to their stories and use the information to help protect them. It means understanding the emotional impact of violence on children from the children themselvesnot only as indicated clinically and statistically, but as demonstrated by children in their pictures and words.
One of the most important things that should come out of listening to children’s voices is that it diminishes in all of us the impulse to deny the magnitude of what’s going on.Only by looking through children’s eyes and listening to their voices is it possible to begin to understand the destructive effects of violence on their lives. Only through understanding their experiences is it possible to begin to craft prevention, intervention, and accountability strategies that work.
happens, what its consequences are, and what to do about it) is a complicated,
multifaceted issue. A steady stream of new data and information about it
only increases the complexity. As a result, standard operating definitions
(e.g., “child abuse” or “domestic violence”) often differ across professional,
political, and geographical boundaries, and it can be difficult to agree upon
great reluctance to accept and do something about the fact that large numbers
of children are harmed in lasting ways by violence. A number of dynamics are
operative: (1) widespread denial about the traumatizing effects, (2) paralyzing
discomfort with actually listening to children’s stories, (3) refusal to believe
that ostensibly upstanding citizens may be perpetrators, (4) social norms against
“interfering” in the family life of others, and (5) emotional exhaustion (“burnout”)
among those who do get involved.
with children exposed to violence work in isolation from each other or, worse,
at cross-purposes. The lack of coordination and collaboration is evident in
persistent finger-pointing and blaming of one another for “dropping the ball.”
Yet professionals need to help each other make crucial decisions and ensure
that their mutual efforts are in the best interests of the children and
families they are serving.
These issues are among the many reasons why successfully responding to the problem of children exposed to violence has been so challengingand why it is so critical to have a clearer understanding of the problem and some basic operating principles around which to organize the work. These issues are among the many that inspired the National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence.2
Millions of children are exposed to violence each year
children between the ages of 12 and 17, approximately 1.8 million have been
the victims of a serious sexual assault, 3.9 million have been victims of a
serious physical assault, and almost 9 million have witnessed serious
of arrests but made up about 25 percent of crime victims.4
percent of the victims were killed with a firearm.5
984,000 children were victims of maltreatment nationwide and that approximately
1,100 children die annually as a result of child abuse or neglect.6
more than 200,000 acts of violence on television, including 16,000 murders.7
It is highly likely that the numbers have increased since then.
those labeled “bad kids”; shy, lonely, and compliant children; preverbal and
very young children; and emotionally disturbed or “needy” adolescents. Children
with physical, emotional, or developmental disabilities are particularly
vulnerable to victimization.8
Young children are particularly at risk
Hospital primary care clinic had witnessed a shooting or stabbing before the
age of 6. Almost all (94 percent) of the children had been exposed to multiple
forms of violence, and half had been exposed to violence in the past month.
Half of the children witnessed this violence in the home and half witnessed it
on the streets. Their average age was 2.7 years.9
children under age 5.10
fatalities in 1997. Child abuse is the leading cause of death in children
under age 1.11
1996, the victim was younger than age 12.12
The maltreatment of children and violence against women often go hand in hand
encountered by police during domestic violence
arrests each year.14
to occur in the victim’s home, where children
may be present to see or hear the sexual assault of their mothers or caretakers.15
violence against women in the same families.16
murdered or physically injured.17
The home can be a dangerous place
than are severely injured in acts of violence on school grounds or elsewhere.18
family violence, it is significantly underaddressed.19
Child victims are at greater risk of becoming offenders themselves
juvenile by 53 percent and of arrest for a violent crime as an adult by 38
ages. They also commit nearly twice as many offenses as nonabused children and
are arrested more frequently.21
Children suffer severe emotional and developmental consequences from exposure to violence
problems, educational difficulties, alcohol and drug abuse, and employment
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)presumably stemming from violent
experiences in their past. PTSD is a long-term mental health condition
characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks or nightmares, and other
behavioral and psychological symptoms. A significant number of these adolescents
abuse alcohol and drugs as a method of coping with PTSD.23
children who experience domestic violence
exhibit higher levels of childhood behavioral,
social, and emotional problems than children
who have not witnessed such violence.”24
They may experience feelings of terror, isolation, guilt, helplessness, and grief.25
and long lasting. Children who witness violence often experience many of the
same symptoms and lasting effects as children who are direct victims of
Addressing prevention, intervention, and accountability
Prevention means, quite simply, stopping children’s exposure to violence before it happens. It means reaching at-risk families early and helping new parents become capable and nurturing caretakers; investing in the full range of early childhood care and support efforts (including Head Start, Early Head Start, and childcare); providing outlets and respite for families under stress; teaching children, youth, and adults conflict resolution skills; challenging norms that allow men and boys to use power, control, and violence to dominate women and girls; bringing an end to domestic violence; keeping violent images out of homes; and ensuring that communities have the resources and capacity to support all of these efforts.
Intervention means improving the current system of services for children or creating new approaches so that the service system is responsive to the complexity of children’s lives and is rooted in and defined by communities. Specifically, intervention must be seamless, flexible, collaborative across professional disciplines, oriented to the long term, and sensitive to cultural differences and children’s developmental stages. Achieving these improvements to the service system will mean addressing issues of turf and prejudice, enhancing interdisciplinary communication, and improving training.
Accountability means holding perpetrators of violenceagainst children and against the children’s mothers and caretakersaccountable for their actions. It means regarding crimes against children as among the most serious of all offenses. It means taking steps to reform criminal statutes, courtroom environments and procedures, and law enforcement and prosecutorial techniques to ensure that children are not retraumatized by the legal process and that perpetrators are brought to justice.
Beyond providing an important set of goals and actions, the continuum of prevention, intervention, and accountability demands thinking across disciplines and considering the ways in which each profession has an obligation to participate at every stage in the process. Child protection workers, for example, have important roles not only in intervening once violence has occurred but in working with families to prevent further violence, in being available to the community to teach about prevention, and in collaborating with law enforcement to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. Law enforcement personnel also have important roles to play in prevention and intervention. They should become educated about and sensitized to the dynamics of violence within families, with the goals of preventing violence before it occurs, identifying violence when it has occurred, and creating procedures for deposing and examining witnesses that encourage participation in the legal process without further trauma. The continuum of prevention, intervention, and accountability can stimulate professional and community collaboration that is crucial for addressing children’s exposure to violence.27
Each of these principles, detailed below, suggests a series of specific action steps.