Executive Summary

The likelihood that today’s children will be exposed to some form of violence—in the streets, at school, at home, or in the media—is enormous. In the short term, exposure to violence can result in the total upheaval of a child’s life. In the long term, many children exposed to violence 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. Additionally, these children are at greater risk of becoming offenders themselves.

Recognizing that today the Nation is facing the consequences of previous inadequate investments to protect its children, the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Health and Human Services (HHS) convened a summit of 150 practitioners and policymakers in June 1999 to contemplate the problem of children’s exposure to violence and create a national blueprint for action. 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. Members of the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women were also present.

The National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence provided the opportunity to learn from participants’ experience and expertise, crafting a set of key operating principles and concrete steps: a practical action agenda. The Action Plan presented in this document describes that agenda, integrating the most up-to-date data on children exposed to violence with the key elements of known best practices, suggesting both discipline-specific and general action steps, and identifying resources for additional information.

A framework for understanding and addressing children’s exposure to violence

The Action Plan recommends that efforts to address children’s exposure to violence:

  • 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 first step in addressing the problem of children’s exposure to violence is commitment to a vision for the future—a vision that includes clear goals and a path for achieving them. Critical to that process is a willingness to consider doing things differently. For policymakers, this means increasing resources for prevention programs and other services at the front end of the system. For justice system professionals, it means being sensitive to the serious impact of violence and victimization on children. For service providers, it means recognizing and building on the strengths of battered women and helping them develop safety strategies for themselves and their children, consistently viewing children within the context of family, and developing comprehensive services that work together. Finally, there must be a commitment from professionals to keep children and their voices at the core of the work that is done on their behalf.

    Understanding the challenges

    There are many reasons why successfully responding to the issue of children’s exposure to violence has been so difficult and why a clearer understanding of the issue and some basic operating principles around which to organize the work are so critical. Among these reasons are the following:

  • 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, made even more complex by the steady stream of new data and information. This complexity makes it difficult to agree upon joint strategies.

  • It is a problem people try to avoid. Denial, discomfort, refusal to identify perpetrators, and “burnout” contribute to the Nation’s reluctance to do something about the large numbers of children harmed by violence.

  • 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.

    Knowing the facts

    Effective strategies for addressing children’s exposure to violence must be based on a thorough understanding of the facts surrounding the problem. For example:

    Millions of children are exposed to violence each year. National estimates based on a 1995 survey indicate that of the Nation’s 22.3 million children between the ages of 12 and 17, approximately 1.8 million have been 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. Every day in 1997, six young people (under the age of 18) were murdered; 56 percent of the victims were killed with a firearm.

    Young children are particularly at risk. 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.

    The maltreatment of children and violence against women often go hand in hand. As many as half a million children may be encountered by police during domestic violence arrests. There is an overlap of 30 to 60 percent between violence against children and violence against women in the same families.

    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.

    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.

    Children suffer severe emotional and developmental consequences from exposure to violence. Approximately 2 million adolescents ages 12–17 appear to have suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (a long-term mental health condition characterized by a variety of behavioral and psychological symptoms), presumably stemming from violent experiences in their past.

    Addressing prevention, intervention, and accountability

    Policymakers and practitioners need to find a way to organize the complex information about children’s exposure to violence and the range of available strategies for action. One way is to think about a continuum of prevention, intervention, and accountability.

  • Prevention means stopping children’s exposure to violence before it happens. It means reaching at-risk families early; investing in a full range of early childhood care and respite services; teaching conflict resolution skills; challenging norms that allow men and boys to use power, control, and violence to dominate women and girls; ending domestic violence; keeping violent images out of the home; and providing community resources needed to prevent violence.

  • 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.

  • 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 the justice system and its procedures to ensure that children are not retraumatized by the legal process and that perpetrators are brought to justice.

    Working across disciplines

    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. This approach can stimulate the professional and community collaboration that is crucial for addressing children’s exposure to violence.

    Children Exposed to Violence: A Blueprint for Action

    Participants in the National Summit defined a series of eight operating principles to address children’s exposure to violence:

  • 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.

    Principle 1: Work together

    No one program has the resources or the expertise to develop a truly comprehensive response to children and families experiencing violence. Experience shows that coordinated responses to children exposed to violence can accomplish the following: reduce the number of interviews and other agency procedures a child undergoes, minimize the number of individuals involved in a case, enhance the quality of evidence discovered, provide essential information to family and child protection services agencies, help build comprehensive safety plans for battered women and their children, prevent the system from holding battered women accountable for the actions of the abuser, and generally minimize the likelihood of conflicts and finger-pointing among agencies with different philosophies and mandates.

    In addition to collaborative practices, there is an equally pressing need for collaborative leadership. Collaboration must also go beyond service agencies, community-based organizations, and individual professionals to include affected families, youth, and other community members.

    Collaboration can range from taking steps to coordinate the activities of various disciplines to jointly constructing a new and mutual helping system. It can mean joint training, consultation, or actual joint practice. The Action Plan provides many examples of specific collaborative action steps that can be taken by child protective services professionals, domestic violence advocates, healthcare professionals, judges, law enforcement professionals, attorneys, legislators, policymakers, researchers, and school personnel. The Action Plan also highlights specific programs that exemplify collaborative action.

    Principle 2: Begin earlier

    Recent research on children’s brain development shows that what happens very early in a child’s life forms the core of his or her later capacity for learning, socialization, and success. A common assumption has been that very young children’s exposure to violence does not matter because they do not know what is going on and will not remember it. In fact, for even the youngest child, the feelings of terror, hopelessness, rage, and anxiety are very real, as is the failure to make positive and meaningful social connections. Children exposed to violence must accomplish crucial developmental tasks in a persistent state of fear. This new information goes hand in hand with the recent realization that very young children constitute a significant proportion of the children who are exposed to violence. Violence prevention efforts must start much earlier, and all training for professionals working in this field must include information about very young children.

    Beginning earlier means reaching at-risk families even before the child is born, providing support in the home to help new parents become capable and nurturing caretakers, identifying families that are isolated from kinship or community supports and connecting them to the community, providing respite and crisis care services to help parents and caretakers in times of stress or crisis and to enhance the safety of battered women with young children, providing developmentally targeted support for teen parents, and emphasizing training to help professionals in all disciplines work effectively with very young children. The Action Plan highlights programs that focus on very young children.

    Principle 3: Think developmentally

    In many ways, there has been a failure to take into account the changing needs of children exposed to violence at different stages in their lives or to recognize that it is possible to help an older child overcome the impact of violence that may have occurred years ago. Too often, a child’s age or developmental level is disregarded. Perhaps worse, the procedures and settings are often geared to the needs of adults, not to children at all. This is not an effective strategy. Instead, expectations for children’s ability to understand, communicate, and participate must change as children grow and develop. Whenever intervention is necessary, it must be developmentally appropriate for the child. Each formative stage presents unique opportunities and requires a different perspective and a different set of tools.

    Bringing prevention, intervention, and accountability systems in line with the developmental needs of children can be accomplished through four principal strategies: providing training and consultation on child development for all professional disciplines, making the physical environments where services are provided child-friendly, changing agency procedures so they are consistent with children’s needs and capacities, and partnering with schools.

    The Action Plan highlights programs relevant to the principle of thinking developmentally, including several new violence and delinquency prevention and intervention projects that are using age as the basis for defining participants.

    Principle 4: Make mothers safe to keep children safe

    Discussions at the National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence repeatedly returned to three related and persistent assumptions that must be challenged as efforts to address the problem of children exposed to violence move into the 21st century.

    The first two assumptions are that maltreatment of children and violence against women are completely separate phenomena and that children who witness violence are not significantly affected by it. These assumptions are contradicted by two decades of research confirming that adults and children are often victimized in the same family and by research indicating that even when children do not suffer physical injury, the emotional consequences of viewing or hearing violent acts may be severe and long lasting.

    The third assumption that must be challenged is that the nonabusive parent in a domestic violence situation (the mother in 95 percent of the cases) should be held accountable for the actions of the abuser. The practice of blaming women who are victims of domestic violence for batterers’ violence against them and their children belies the fact that most battered women care deeply about their children’s safety and work hard to protect them both from physical assaults by a batterer and from the harm of poverty and of isolation that may result from leaving or reporting a batterer. Women’s efforts to protect their children should be recognized and supported.

    To make safety and stability for battered women and their children a reality will require shifts in traditional practices and a willingness to confront some complicated and vexing policy questions. To resolve some of these dilemmas, the Action Plan identifies several specific steps that can be taken by child protective services professionals, domestic violence advocates, healthcare professionals, judges and court staff, law enforcement professionals, and school personnel. The Action Plan also highlights examples of programs and projects that address the needs of battered women and their children.

    Principle 5: Enforce the law

    Prosecutors and other law enforcement officials agree that, all too often, abusive conduct that would typically result in a felony conviction if committed against an adult stranger is charged and treated less seriously when the victim is a child. Even when perpetrators of child abuse and domestic violence are convicted, judicial oversight and supervision of offenders are too often inadequate. The criminal justice system has a responsibility to make changes that will hold perpetrators of violence against women and children accountable for their actions through vigorous enforcement of the law. Holding perpetrators accountable will require changes to statutes, rules, policies, and procedures.

    The U.S. Department of Justice has a number of specific recommendations for action. Recommendations for State legislative reforms pertain to prosecution of fatal child abuse cases, rules of evidence in child abuse and molestation cases, speedy trials for cases involving child victims or witnesses, privacy protections for child victims, the assumption that children will tell the truth, and special procedures for testimony by children. Recommendations for policy and procedural reforms pertain to child victim/witness specialists in police and prosecutors’ offices, caseload limits for prosecutors, specialized training for law enforcement professionals, management of violent behavior of domestic violence offenders, multidisciplinary investigation teams, volunteer advocates for child victims, and vertical prosecution (i.e., assignment of a single magistrate and prosecutor for the life of a case) of cases involving children exposed to violence. The Action Plan also highlights a number of dependency court improvement initiatives that are under way around the country.

    Principle 6: Make adequate resources available

    When it comes to preventing and reducing the impact of children’s exposure to violence, needs always seem to exceed resources. Tragically, the systems that support children and families are too often the first to be cut when budgets are tight. Resources are desperately needed for both prevention and intervention. Funding is particularly critical to involve community partners, reduce caseloads and provide resources for child protection services and other direct service providers, support and evaluate the effectiveness of offender rehabilitation programs, serve battered women who are seeking to create safety for themselves and their children, and offer a full range of therapeutic treatments needed by children exposed to violence and training in practices that are sensitive to the developmental needs of children. Addressing the needs of children exposed to violence is initially expensive. Yet over the long term, these expenditures prove extremely cost effective.

    Making sure that adequate resources are available to address children’s exposure to violence means making better use of what is currently available (by improving coordination and encouraging volunteerism) and securing substantial and sustained financial investments—both public and private—in families, communities, and the systems that support and protect them. The Action Plan identifies several ways that community-based service agencies, governments, healthcare professionals, and universities can make creative use of what is already available and cites examples of how to secure additional resources.

    Principle 7: Work from a sound knowledge base

    Despite a strong foundation, much more solid research and data on children’s exposure to violence are needed. The lack of information makes it difficult to select the most effective interventions and get them funded. A number of subjects need particular attention, including basic research on child development and resiliency, short- and long-term evaluations of a range of interventions, the effectiveness of coordinated community response efforts, and research that focuses on protective factors unique to particular communities, the impact of cultural competence in working with families, and the issue of overrepresentation of particular minority groups in the justice system.

    Wherever possible, efforts to prevent and reduce the impact of children’s exposure to violence must be based on solid research and must also be documented and evaluated so that future efforts can be improved on the basis of experience. Participants in the National Summit on Children Exposed to Violence identified three critical components of an effective research strategy: seeking input from community members, practitioners, and victims and, where possible, conducting research in active collaboration with them; fostering international collaboration to gain and share knowledge worldwide; and broadly disseminating research findings, best and promising practices, and community directories of resources and practices.

    Principle 8: Create a culture of nonviolence

    The greatest success will be achieved when specific actions are taken within a larger social environment that can help sustain them. A culture of nonviolence that supports children, women, and families is the vital context to ensure success in preventing and reducing the impact of children’s exposure to violence. New studies are revealing two important facts: that the presence of “protective factors” (e.g., strong family relationships and alternative supports, among others) can guard children against the negative effects of exposure to violence and that “collective efficacy” (the willingness of neighbors to intervene on behalf of others) is the one characteristic that can account for less violence in a community. There is evidence to suggest, then, that a culture supportive of families, women, and children would inherently provide the protective factors and the collective efficacy needed to keep children safe from violence. Many believe in the value of such primary prevention, but specific skills and training are needed to develop effective primary prevention strategies and initiatives.

    Cultural change is a tall order. The Action Plan outlines a number of critical steps that agencies, communities, and individuals can take to achieve this goal. Agencies can take steps to ensure meaningful citizen involvement, bring new voices to the table, and use the bully pulpit. Communities and individuals can focus on creating safe spaces, increasing awareness about children’s exposure to violence, stopping gun violence, holding the media accountable, and supporting community policing. The Action Plan also cites examples of programs contributing to the creation of a nonviolent culture.


    Children’s exposure to violence is an issue that touches everyone—an American tragedy that scars children and threatens the safety of communities. A great challenge lies ahead: to help move this country closer to the day when children are no longer victims of and witnesses to violence, when they are given the support they need to thrive, and when they respond to conflict nonviolently, without destroying their lives and the lives of others. Taking the steps in this national Action Plan will bring significant progress in this journey.


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