When U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, created a task force to study what could be done to reduce the exposure to violence that children are experiencing, he knew that the problem was grave. Some of the statistics in the report are startling.
Approximately two out of three American children are exposed to violence
Of the 76 million children currently residing in the United States, an estimated 46 million can expect to have their lives touched by violence, crime, abuse, and psychological trauma this year.
Some children exposed to violence end up in the criminal justice system as juveniles, or adults. Feeling powerless may tempt a young person to join a gang, or act out in a violent manner.
The report lists the various types of violence that children are exposed to, and the repercussions of each:
Sexual abuse places children at high risk for serious and chronic health problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, suicidality, eating disorders, sleep disorders, substance abuse, and deviant sexual behavior. Sexually abused children often become hypervigilant about the possibility of future sexual violation, experience feelings of betrayal by the adults who failed to care for and protect them.
Physical abuse puts children at high risk for lifelong problems with medical illness, PTSD, suicidality, eating disorders, substance abuse, and deviant sexual behavior. Physically abused children are at heightened risk for cognitive and developmental impairments, which can lead to violent behavior as a form of self-protection and control. These children often feel powerless when faced with physical intimidation, threats, or conflict and may compensate by becoming isolated (through truancy or hiding) or aggressive (by bullying or joining gangs for protection). Physically abused children are at risk for significant impairment in memory processing and problem solving and for developing defensive behaviors that lead to consistent avoidance of intimacy.
Intimate partner violence within families puts children at high risk for severe and potentially lifelong problems with physical health, mental health, and school and peer relationships as well as for disruptive behavior. Witnessing or living with domestic or intimate partner violence often burdens children with a sense of loss or profound guilt and shame because of their mistaken assumption that they should have intervened or prevented the violence or, tragically, that they caused the violence. They frequently castigate themselves for having failed in what they assume to be their duty to protect a parent or sibling(s) from being harmed, for not having taken the place of their horribly injured or killed family member, or for having caused the offender to be violent. Children exposed to intimate partner violence often experience a sense of terror and dread that they will lose an essential caregiver through permanent injury or death. They also fear losing their relationship with the offending parent, who may be removed from the home, incarcerated, or even executed. Children will mistakenly blame themselves for having caused the batterer to be violent. If no one identifies these children and helps them heal and recover, they may bring this uncertainty, fear, grief, anger, shame, and sense of betrayal into all of their important relationships for the rest of their lives.
Community violence in neighborhoods can result in children witnessing assaults and even killings of family members, peers, trusted adults, innocent bystanders, and perpetrators of violence. Violence in the community can prevent children from feeling safe in their own schools and neighborhoods. Violence and ensuing psychological trauma can lead children to adopt an attitude of hypervigilance, to become experts at detecting threat or perceived threat — never able to let down their guard in order to be ready for the next outbreak of violence. They may come to believe that violence is “normal,” that violence is “here to stay,” and that relationships are too fragile to trust because one never knows when violence will take the life of a friend or loved one. They may turn to gangs or criminal activities to prevent others from viewing them as weak and to counteract feelings of despair and powerlessness, perpetuating the cycle of violence and increasing their risk of incarceration. They are also at risk for becoming victims of intimate partner violence in adolescence and in adulthood.
The task force makes several recommendations to help end the “epidemic of children exposed to violence.” Recommendations include identifying, screening and assessing such children, and training professionals in the methods to do so.
To end the epidemic, the report states that we must “Charge leaders at the highest levels of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government with the coordination and implementation of the recommendations in this report.” Another recommendation is to “Engage youth as leaders and peer experts in all initiatives defending children against violence and its harmful effects.”
Creating nurturing homes by providing services, including home visits by professionals, to children and family members who were exposed to violence, is another suggestion from the Task Force. The community should be educated about childhood exposure to violence and should be a part of organizing “…local coalitions in every community representing professionals from multiple disciplines and the full range of service systems (including law enforcement, the courts, health care, schools, family services, child protection, domestic violence programs, rape crisis centers, and child advocacy centers) as well as families and other community members, to assess local challenges and resources, develop strategies, and carry out coordinated responses to reduce violence and the number of children exposed to violence.
The Task Force believes that the juvenile justice system needs to implement some changes, writing “The vast majority of children involved in the juvenile justice system have survived exposure to violence and are living with the trauma of those experiences. A trauma-informed approach to juvenile justice does not require wholesale abandonment of existing programs, but instead it can be used to make many existing programs more effective and cost-efficient. By correctly assessing the needs of youth in the justice system, including youth exposed to violence, and matching services directly to those needs, the system can help children recover from the effects of exposure to violence and become whole.”
The Task Force added the following recommendations:
Make trauma-informed screening, assessment, and care the standard in juvenile justice services.
Abandon juvenile justice correctional practices that traumatize children and further reduce their opportunities to become productive members of society.
Provide juvenile justice services appropriate to children’s ethnocultural background that are based on an assessment of each violence-exposed child’s individual needs.
Provide care and services to address the special circumstances and needs of girls in the juvenile justice system.
Provide care and services to address the special circumstances and needs of LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning) youth in the juvenile justice system.
Guarantee that all violence-exposed children accused of a crime have legal representation.
Help, do not punish, child victims of sex trafficking.
Whenever possible, prosecute young offenders in the juvenile justice system instead of transferring their cases to adult courts.
Source: Reclaiming Futures click here to go to website
The full report, Defending Childhood: Protect, Heal, Thrive, can be read by clicking on the link below.