Childhood exposure to violence - conventional crime, child maltreatment, sexual victimization, and community family and school violence - is pervasive in the U.S. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV) found that 8 percent of respondents of the survey, called polyvictims, had experienced seven or more types of victimization in the previous year.
Exposure to violence, substance abuse and involvement with the juvenile justice system often occur in the same high-risk groups and have serious consequences for the safety of all family members and the larger community. Behaviors such as fighting, running away, cutting school and/or substance abuse are some of the more challenging behaviors for the educational, child welfare and juvenile justice systems. But inability to pay attention, depression and poor self-esteem can be equally problematic for youth and their families.
Exposure to violence has the potential to overwhelm a child’s ability to cope. The younger a child is when s/he first experiences trauma, the less s/he will be able to cope and the greater the risk of developmental problems. Whether direct or indirect, exposure to violence is a very traumatic experience for a child because they are powerless to stop the situation. Infants exposed to violence may not develop the attachments to their caretakers that are critical to their development. Adolescents who have been exposed to violence are at risk of recreating the violence they have seen. They are more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, run away from home, engage in teenage prostitution and other delinquent behavior, and commit sexual assault crimes.
International and national data indicate that child victimization is a significant contributor to youth violence and substance abuse. This may be because many of the factors highly associated with the occurrence of exposure to violence are the same factors that put children at risk for youth violence and entering the juvenile justice system. Overlapping all these problems is substance abuse. These linkages have important implications for intervention and prevention efforts.
There is a need for comprehensive community-based prevention/early intervention collaboration that addresses all three interrelated types of risks: exposure to violence, substance abuse and entering the juvenile justice system. The overlap of factors that we have seen contributing to all the risks provides a fertile ground for successful and urgently needed collaborative prevention efforts.
The Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and its partners are making great progress in helping children and youth through initiatives designed to promote evidence-based interventions, improve the ways that serving systems operate, train providers, and rally individuals throughout communities. Information about these efforts are described in the Safe Start National Resource Center.
Based on research on risk factors, protective factors, successful prevention programs, and effective interventions, efforts should:
- Target communities at high risk.
- Break the isolation of families by helping them establish supportive ties to their community, and assisting them to achieve economic independence.
- Provide early, age-appropriate, research-informed strategies and evidence-based interventions for children who have been exposure to violence.
- Build a trauma-informed workforce to improve the quality of services and treatment for children exposed to violence.
- Establish partnerships between local public agencies and service providers, including CPS, exposure to violence agencies, early childhood development and daycare programs, the schools, the police, healthcare providers, to name a few. Ideally, the policies and practices of each of the partnership agencies would be reviewed and changed to integrate a trauma-focused prevention and intervention focus.
- Develop a local communications and advocacy strategy that garners the support of public policy makers and opinion leaders for prevention/early intervention efforts. Policymakers must be motivated to respond in ways that substantiate community-defined strategies.
With the help of caring families, supportive communities and child serving systems that are trauma-informed, young people can develop coping strengths and begin to heal from their exposure to violence experience, substance abuse or time in the juvenile justice system.
Elena Cohen, MSW, MEd, is an internationally known expert in youth and women’s trauma and Director of the Safe Start Center, a National Outreach and Resource Center for communities striving to address children’s exposure to violence and domestic violence. The Safe Start Center is funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
*Photo at top by Flickr user Daryl I.
Updated: August 28 2012