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Children's Exposure to Violence

Community Violence

Many children in the United States are exposed to so much violence that the problem has been characterized as a "public health epidemic." Related in part to transient age-related demographic changes (that is, in the percentage of youth who are at highest risk for violence), children's violence exposure has declined slightly since the early 1990s. The homicide rate, however, is still more than double that reported in 1950 according to the National Summary of Injury Mortality Data, with the 1996 rate being 22 per 100,000 for young people fifteen to twenty-four years old. Further, the United States has the highest level of violence exposure of any developed country in the world. Homicide is the third-leading cause of death for children five to fourteen years of age, the second-leading cause of death for those aged fifteen to twenty-four, and has been the leading cause of death for African-American youth from the early 1980s into the early twenty-first century. It is crucial to understand what such levels of exposure may mean for children in the United States.

In addition to community violence exposure, some estimates, such as those reported by Murray Straus and Richard Gelles in 1990, indicate that between 8.5 and 11.3 women per 100 are abused by husbands or boyfriends in the United States. Dating violence–that is, the perpetration of an act of violence by at least one member of an unmarried couple on the other member (which can include sexual assault, physical violence, or verbal or emotional abuse)–appears to range from 9 to 65 percent depending on whether threats and emotional or verbal aggression are included in the definition.

While exposure to community violence occurs less frequently for children who do not live in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, children are also often exposed to violence in their homes and in the media. Exposure to media and family violence crosses socioeconomic and cultural boundaries, occurring in all groups in U.S. society. The effects are often less visible in higher socioeconomic groups, but, nonetheless, such violence impacts significantly on children during their development and influences their later relationship experiences.

Levels of Exposure to Community Violence

Community violence exposure, whether it be isolated, frequent, or unfortunately at times almost continuous, includes frequent and continual exposure to random violence and the use of guns, knives, and drugs. In the early twenty-first century it is rare in urban elementary schools not to find children who have been exposed to such negative events. Children who have been interviewed in several different studies lucidly tell their stories of witnessing violence, including shootings and beatings, as if they were ordinary, everyday events.

In Steven Maran and Donald Cohen's survey of sixth, eighth, and tenth graders in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1992, 40 percent reported witnessing at least one violent crime in the previous year. Very few of these inner-city children were able to avoid being exposed to violence, and almost all eighth graders knew someone who had been killed in a violent incident. In a study by Carl C. Bell and Esther J. Jenkins involving 500 children at three elementary schools on the South Side of Chicago in 1993, one in four had witnessed a shooting and one-third had seen a stabbing. In another study by Jenkins and Bell (published in 1997) surveying 200 Chicago high school students in 1993, almost two-thirds had seen a shooting and close to one-half had seen a stabbing. Three in five of those who witnessed a shooting or stabbing indicated that the incident had resulted in a death. More than one-fourth of these high school students reported that they had themselves been victims of severe violence.

Even very young children are exposed to high levels of violence. Betsy Groves and colleagues' 1993 survey of parents whose children attended a pediatric clinic at a public hospital in Boston in 1993 found that one of every ten children under the age of six had witnessed a shooting or stabbing. In Marva Lewis, Joy Osofsky, and Mary Sue Moore's 1997 study, African-American third-and fifth-grade children living in a high-violence area of New Orleans were asked to draw pictures of "what happens" in their neighborhoods. They drew in graphic detail pictures of shootings, drug deals, stabbings, fighting, and funerals and reported being scared of the violence and of something happening to them. Children living with domestic and community violence commonly draw similar pictures.

In 1993 John E. Richter and Pedro Martinez conducted an extensive interview study on the exposure to violence with 165 mothers of children, ages six to ten, living in a low-income neighborhood in Washington, DC. According to police statistics, this neighborhood was characterized as having a moderate level of violence; there might be an occasional murder or violent incident, but violence was not a regular event. Concurrently, another study by Joy Osofsky and colleagues gathered similar interview data on fifty-three African-American mothers of children, ages nine to twelve, in a low-income neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana. According to police statistics, this neighborhood was characterized as having a high level of violence; a murder or more than one violent incident occurred on a regular basis. Some differences in violence exposure were noted, likely due, to a considerable extent, to differences in the levels of violence in the two neighborhoods being sampled. The data from both studies, however, clearly showed that children frequently are victims of and witnesses to significant amounts of violence. Fifty-one percent of the New Orleans fifth graders and 32 percent of the Washington, D.C., children had been victims of violence, ranging from being chased or beaten to having a gun held to their head.

Xiaoming Li and colleagues, in a 1998 study of 349 low-income black urban children (ages nine to fifteen), found that those who witnessed or were victims of violence showed symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder similar to those of soldiers coming back from war. The symptoms increased according to the number of violent acts the child had witnessed or experienced. In a 1996 report, Hope Hill and colleagues focused on some of the sociopolitical issues related to violence exposure as well as the importance of support for children by the family, teachers, and community in effective prevention and intervention efforts. This work is consistent with the findings of the Violence Intervention Program, which have indicated the importance of a broad base of support for violence prevention. Deborah Gorman-Smith and Patrick Tolan found that exposure to community violence was related to subsequent symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as to aggressive behaviors as reported by the children, their parents, and teachers. In this 1998 study, having a mother present in the home seemed to be a major factor in mitigating the relationship between community violence exposure and subsequent depressive symptoms in the children.

While specific rates of exposure to community violence vary depending on the definition of exposure and the nature of the sample, children of all ages are being exposed to community violence at an alarming rate. As noted, such exposure has been linked to higher rates of post-traumatic stress symptoms, as well as to depressive symptoms, antisocial behavior, and decreased school performance. In a 2000 article, Stacey Overstreet suggested that repeated exposure to community violence may influence children to become numbed, demonstrating uncaring behavior toward others and desensitization to aggression. Such children may themselves show increased aggression, acting out, and subsequent antisocial behavior.

Impact on Children in School

Exposure to violence is not limited to homes and neighborhoods. For many youth, schools, which should be safe havens, are also places where they can be exposed to violence, which can impact on a student's concentration and ability to be successful in school. Exposure to violence and trauma can lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and vulnerability in children. Some may react with anger and aggression, which can lead to behavior and discipline problems in school. Others may withdraw and become depressed, which while not drawing as much attention can have a great affect on their ability to concentrate, their self-esteem, and, consequently, their performance. Beyond the psychological and behavioral consequences of exposure to violence that may impact on a child in school, children may learn that violence is an acceptable behavior. They learn violence from what they observe and may believe that fighting and violent behavior is all right either in or outside of the classroom. They do not learn to negotiate to solve problems; rather, they may more quickly lose control of their emotions. Children exposed to violence often do not learn to communicate feelings and may be more easily pressured by peers. They may believe that aggressive behaviors lead to attention and respect. Bullying and intimidating behaviors may be another consequence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, in their 1998 "Surveillance Summaries," reported survey results from a nationally representative sample of students in grades nine through twelve for selected risk behaviors both at school and outside of school. The survey focused on categories, including students who had carried a weapon, had carried a gun, were in a physical fight, were injured in a physical fight, were threatened or injured on school property, were in a physical fight on school property, and had property stolen or deliberately damaged on school property. The study found alarmingly high incidents of these disturbing behaviors in schools throughout the country.

Children suffer with enormous short-term and long-term consequences from such violence exposure. Students living in urban inner-city environments commonly provide vivid descriptions of the violence they see and experience in their environment, sometimes on a daily basis. Susan Chira's 1994 poll of high school students indicated that 30 percent of white students and 70 percent of African-American students knew someone who had been shot within the previous five years; 19 percent of white students and 37 percent of African-American students identified violence as the biggest problem at school; and 5 percent of white students and 27 percent of African-American students reported worrying about shootings at school. A Harris poll of 2,000 teenagers from around the country indicated that one in eight overall, and almost two in five from inner cities, said that they carried a weapon to protect themselves. In addition, one in nine overall, and one in three in high violence areas, said they had stayed away from school for fear of violence. This 1996 poll was carried out before the many school shootings that later occurred. Despite the previously noted data indicating that the overall incidence of violence exposure has been decreasing slightly (although this may be transient), national surveys demonstrate increased concern and fears about violence in school, especially among older children.

The problem of children's exposure to community violence is significant. Without intervention efforts, it may increase with age shifts in coming years. It is clear that major efforts need to be undertaken to decrease violence exposure and to mitigate the effects of this exposure when it occurs.


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