The likelihood that today’s children will be exposed to some form of violencein the streets, at school, at home, or in the mediais 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 futurea 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 violencehow and why it
happens, what its consequences are, and what to do about itis 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
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
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 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 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
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 investmentsboth public and privatein 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 everyonean 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
| November 2000