Children in the United States are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than are adults. Children are exposed to violence every day in their homes, schools, and communities. They may be struck by a boyfriend, bullied by a classmate, or abused by an adult. They may witness an assault on a parent or a shooting on the street. Such exposure can cause significant physical, mental, and emotional harm with long-term effects that can last well into adulthood.
In 1999, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) created the Safe Start Initiative to prevent and reduce the impact of children’s exposure to violence through enhanced practice, research, evaluation, training and technical assistance, resources, and outreach. The initiative has improved the delivery of developmentally appropriate services for children exposed to violence and their families.
Understanding the nature and extent of children’s exposure to violence is essential to combating its effects. Partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OJJDP has sponsored the most comprehensive effort to date to measure children’s exposure to violence. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence is the first survey to ask children and caregivers about exposure to a range of violent incidents and maltreatment.
Extent of the problem
The survey confirms that most of our society’s children are exposed to violence in their daily lives. More than 60% of the children surveyed were exposed to violence within the past year, either directly or indirectly (i.e., as a witness to a violent act; by learning of a violent act against a family member, neighbor, or close friend; or from a threat against their home or school). Nearly one-half of the children and adolescents surveyed (46.3%) were assaulted at least once in the past year, and more than 1 in 10 (10.2%) were injured in an assault; 1 in 4 (24.6%) were victims of robbery, vandalism, or theft; 1 in 10 (10.2%) suffered from child maltreatment (including physical and emotional abuse, neglect, or a family abduction); and 1 in 16 (6.1%) were victimized sexually.
More than 1 in 4 (25.3%) witnessed a violent act and nearly 1 in 10 (9.8%) saw one family member assault another. Multiple victimizations were common: more than one-third (38.7%) experienced 2 or more direct victimizations in the previous year, more than 1 in 10 (10.9%) experienced 5 or more direct victimizations in the previous year, and more than 1 in 75 (1.4%) experienced 10 or more direct victimizations in the previous year.
Categories of victimization
• Conventional crime. Nine types of victimization, including robbery, theft, destruction of property, attack with an object or weapon, attack without an object or weapon, attempted attack, threatened attack, kidnapping or attempted kidnapping, and hate crime or bias attack (an attack on a child because of the child’s or parent’s skin color, religion, physical problem, or perceived sexual orientation).
• Child maltreatment. Four types of victimization, including being hit, kicked, or beaten by an adult (other than spanking on the bottom); psychological or emotional abuse; neglect; and abduction by a parent or caregiver, also known as custodial interference.
• Peer and sibling victimization. Six types of victimization, including being attacked by a group of children; being hit or beaten by another child, including a brother or sister; being hit or kicked in the private parts; being chased, grabbed, or forced to do something; being teased or emotionally bullied; and being a victim of dating violence.
• Sexual victimization. Seven types of victimization, including sexual contact or fondling by an adult the child knew, sexual contact or fondling by an adult stranger, sexual contact or fondling by another child or teenager, attempted or completed intercourse, exposure or “flashing,” sexual harassment, and consensual sexual conduct with an adult.
• Witnessing and indirect victimization. These fall into two general categories, exposure to community violence and exposure to family violence. For exposure to community violence, the survey included 10 types of victimization, including seeing someone attacked with an object or weapon; seeing someone attacked without an object or weapon; having something stolen from the household; having a friend, neighbor, or family member murdered; witnessing a murder; witnessing or hearing a shooting, bombing, or riot; being in a war zone; knowing a family member or close friend who was fondled or forced to have sex; knowing a family member or close friend who was robbed or mugged; and knowing a family member or close friend who was threatened with a gun or knife.
For exposure to family violence, eight types of victimization were assessed: seeing a parent assaulted by a spouse, domestic partner, or boyfriend or girlfriend; seeing a brother or sister assaulted by a parent; threat by one parent to assault the other; threat by a parent to damage the other parent’s property; one parent pushing the other; one parent hitting or slapping the other; one parent kicking, choking, or beating up the other; and assault by another adult household member against a child or adult in the household.
• School violence and threat. Two types of victimization, including a credible bomb threat against the child’s school and fire or other property damage to the school.
• Internet violence and victimization. Two types of victimization, including Internet threats or harassment and unwanted online sexual solicitation.
Key elements of designing an effective response
Children exposed to violence have a variety of complex needs, and the network of child and family interventions must reflect this diversity of needs. It is unrealistic to expect that any single program can promote strength and resilience of children and families, provide interventions to reduce the negative effects of the exposure, and respond to the economic, social, and psychological needs of families. Each system should offer services that are based on its function and focus, work collaboratively with other agencies, and refer families for other services.
Research and program evaluations demonstrate that the best outcomes are achieved when the following response elements are adapted to specific fields of expertise, resources, and constraints:
• Early detection and identification. Communities, families, and staff at different entry points should recognize and respond immediately to symptoms of exposure to violence.
• Promoting community awareness and educating practitioners. Outreach includes contacting groups of people with information and resources and educating practitioners on core concepts of vulnerability and exposure to violence
• Protocols, policies, and procedures. Programs and systems should have specific protocols, policies, and procedures that detail their response to child exposure to violence.
• Referrals. Staff should be aware of services provided by other agencies and be able to provide appropriate referrals to these agencies, including mandated reporting to child protective services when required.
• Evidence-based interventions. Research and emerging promising practices should inform service delivery.
Critical components of successful interventions include a developmental perspective that engages the child’s and the family’s ecological contexts and service systems to screen for, provide early intervention for, and respond to the treatment needs of children. Effectiveness is bolstered when treatment is offered in a range of settings, such as homes, early care and education programs, and schools, incorporating collaboration with health, law enforcement, legal, child welfare, and other systems.
If you would like the full text of this publication, it is available at no charge at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227744.pdf .
If you would like to read this entire article and receive two hours of continuing education credit, visit Professional Development Resources at https://www.pdresources.org/course/index/1/1144/Childrens-Exposure-to-Violence
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