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.

—Young person exposed to violence

Efforts to address children’s exposure to violence must incorporate a number of key elements. They must:

  • Reflect a commitment to common goals.

  • Be grounded in a full understanding of the issues and challenges involved.

  • Be based in fact.

  • Fully integrate prevention, intervention, and accountability measures.

  • Work across disciplines.

    Committing to common goals

    The goal must be a future in which children’s lives and well-being are critically important to society and in which their safety is the highest priority.
    As children move down the well-worn path from child victim to adult offender, there are many opportunities to stop the cycle of violence. The first step in meeting the challenge is commitment—commitment to a vision for the future and to a path for getting there. The goal must be a future in which children’s lives and well-being are critically important to society and in which their safety is the highest priority—a future in which one can walk into any courthouse in this country and encounter no child who has been bruised, battered, or neglected; no child who has seen his or her mother1 brutalized or demeaned; and no juvenile who has engaged in delinquent behavior.

    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 themselves—not 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.

    —Pamela Sicher Cantor, M.D., Founder and President,
    Children’s Mental Health Alliance Foundation

    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.

    Understanding the challenges

    Children’s exposure to violence is a complicated, multifaceted issue.
    In many ways, America is intently focused on violence. Recent high-profile incidents have led to debates over gun control, the role of the media, and the question of whom to hold accountable. Indeed, events such as the “Million Mom March” to stop gun violence show that Americans have vowed to renew their commitment to ending violence. Yet despite all the discussion and professed commitment, successfully identifying and implementing the solutions remain difficult. Why is this so?

  • It is a complicated issue. Children’s exposure to violence (how and why it
        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
        joint strategies.

  • It is a problem people try to avoid. In many respects, the Nation shows a
        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.

  • It is an issue that divides professionals. Too often, professionals working
        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 challenging—and 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

    Knowing the facts

    Children younger than age 4 accounted for 76 percent of child abuse and neglect fatalities in 1997.
    Effective strategies for addressing children’s exposure to violence must be based on a thorough understanding of the facts surrounding the problem. A review of the research on this topic reveals the scope and magnitude of the issue and suggests key entry points for intervention. The following sections highlight a few of these facts.

    Millions of children are exposed to violence each year

  • National estimates based on a 1995 survey indicate that of 22.3 million
        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
        violence.3

  • In 1997, young people (particularly teenagers) represented about 18 percent
        of arrests but made up about 25 percent of crime victims.4

  • Every day in 1997, six young people (under the age of 18) were murdered—56
        percent of the victims were killed with a firearm.5

  • Estimates based on data from 44 States indicate that in 1997, approximately
        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

  • Data from 1992 indicate that before a child turns 18, he or she will have witnessed
        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.

  • Certain children are targeted as victims of crime more frequently, including
        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

  • A 1994 study found that 1 out of every 10 children treated in the Boston City
        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

  • Domestic violence has been shown to occur disproportionately in homes with
        children under age 5.10

  • Children younger than age 4 accounted for 76 percent of child abuse and neglect
        fatalities in 1997. Child abuse is the leading cause of death in children
        under age 1.11

  • In one-third of all sexual assaults reported to law enforcement from 1991 to
        1996, the victim was younger than age 12.12

  • Of the 2,100 juvenile murder victims in 1997, 33 percent were under age 6.13

    The maltreatment of children and violence against women often go hand in hand

    Being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 53 percent and of arrest for a violent crime as an adult by 38 percent.

  • As many as half a million children may be
        encountered by police during domestic violence
        arrests each year.14

  • Approximately 34 percent of rapes are estimated
        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

  • There is an overlap of 30 to 60 percent between violence against children and
        violence against women in the same families.16

  • Children who are exposed to domestic violence are at increased risk of being
        murdered or physically injured.17

    The home can be a dangerous place

  • Far more children are victims of serious physical abuse within their homes
        than are severely injured in acts of violence on school grounds or elsewhere.18

  • Although sibling abuse is perhaps statistically the most common form of
        family violence, it is significantly underaddressed.19

    Child victims are at greater risk of becoming offenders themselves

  • Being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of arrest as a
        juvenile by 53 percent and of arrest for a violent crime as an adult by 38
       percent.20

  • On average, abused and neglected children begin committing crimes at younger
        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

  • The long-term consequences of childhood victimization can include mental health
        problems, educational difficulties, alcohol and drug abuse, and employment
        problems.22

  • Approximately 2 million adolescents ages 12–17 appear to have suffered from
        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 witness violence often experience many of the same symptoms and lasting effects as children who are direct victims of violence.

  • “Preliminary research indicates that, on average,
        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

  • The emotional consequences of viewing or hearing violent acts may be severe
        and long lasting. Children who witness violence often experience many of the
        same symptoms and lasting effects as children who are direct victims of
        violence.26

    Additional resources: Knowing the facts

    For more data on children exposed to violence, contact:

    Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 6000, Rockville, MD 20849; 800–638–8736; ojjdp.ncjrs.org/programs/ProgSummary.asp?pi=2.

    National Center for Juvenile Justice (the research arm of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges), 710 Fifth Avenue, Suite 3000, Pittsburgh, PA 15219; 412–227–6950; www.ncjj.org.

    National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Charles B. Wang International Children’s Building, 699 Prince Street, Alexandria, VA 22314; 800–843–5678 or 703–274–3900; www.missingkids.com.

    National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, 330 C Street SW., Washington, DC 20447; 800–FYI (394)–3366 or 703–385–7565; nccanch.acf.hhs.gov.

    National Resource Center for Safe Schools, Northeast Regional Educational Laboratory, 101 Southwest Main Street, Suite 500, Portland, OR 97204; 800–268–2275; www.safetyzone.org/.

    National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 6400 Flank Drive, Suite 1300, Harrisburg, PA 17112; 800–537–2238.

    Office for Victims of Crime Resource Center, P.O. Box 6000, Rockville, MD 20849; 800–627–6872; www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/ovcres.

    Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Family Violence Department, P.O. Box 8970, Reno, NV 89507; 800–527–3223; www.ncjfcj.unr.edu.



    Addressing prevention, intervention, and accountability

    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.
    Committed to common goals, equipped with knowledge, and keeping the voices of children at the forefront, policymakers and practitioners need to find a way to organize the complex information and the range of available strategies for action. One way to do this it to think about a continuum of 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 violence—against children and against the children’s mothers and caretakers—accountable 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.

    Working across disciplines

    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

    Where to begin? Eight principles for action

    Participants in the National Summit arrived at a series of operating principles that can help organize and stimulate efforts to address children’s exposure to violence.
    Participants in the National Summit arrived at a series of operating principles that can help organize and stimulate efforts to address children’s exposure to violence. They are:

  • Principle 1: Work together.

  • Principle 2: Begin earlier.

  • Principle 3: Think developmentally.

  • Principle 4: Make mothers safe to keep children safe.

  • Principle 5: Enforce the law.

  • Principle 6: Make adequate resources available.

  • Principle 7: Work from a sound knowledge base.

  • Principle 8: Create a culture of nonviolence.

    Each of these principles, detailed below, suggests a series of specific action steps.



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