Violence And Effects On Children Research Paper

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1. Violence In America: History

The common dictionary definition of violence runs something like the following: ‘exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse.’ The inclusion of ‘abuse’ in the definition is important, because it opens up the issues of force being used to induce negative psychological states and to violate basic human dignity. Thus, violence includes the range of behaviors that assault or batter, that induce fear or terror, and that demean and humiliate.

Understanding the effects of violence on children demands an interdisciplinary perspective, one that incorporates psychological, biological, sociological, anthropological, and historical insights within the context of a larger ecological model. Anchoring this issue is the fact that each year in the United States nearly 5,000 children and youth commit acts of lethal violence, half against others (murder) and half against themselves (suicide). The numbers of children and youth who commit potentially lethal acts is, of course, many times greater, what with the tens of thousands of ‘serious assaults’ and ‘suicide attempts’ that take place each year involving minors. For each of these kids, and for the families, communities and societies of which they are a part, this problem of violence constitutes a crisis.

The current crisis of these kids is not historically new, however. Writing in Juvenile Justice Update in 1997, Robert Shepherd points out that the New York Times 140 years ago editorially bemoaned the fact that ‘the number of boy burglars, boy robbers and boy murderers is so astoundingly large as to alarm all good men.’ He offered the following analysis from a child psychiatrist working in Manhattan for the Juvenile Court in the 1950s: ‘At first it comes as a shock to meet youngsters under 16 who rob at the point of a gun, push dope, rape and kill. I’ve seen boys of 7 so small they could barely clear the desk who had sold themselves to sex perverts. Others had shot out kids eyes or had clubbed or knifed them, just for the fun of it.’ And the statement is from an article entitled Manhattan’s Child Criminals Are My Job in the Saturday Evening Post of March 27, 1954. Recall that in the mid-nineteenth century, the governor of New York had to call out the militia to deal with rampant youth gangs in New York City.

2. Violence In America: Today

While there are historical dimensions to the current situation, there are features of the contemporary situation that are distinctive as well. For one thing, we must recognize that the magnitude of the problem is different today. There has been a seven-fold increase in per capita aggravated assault rates among youth in the United States since 1956. Also, kids are being tried as adults and incarcerated correspondingly, in what seems like a macabre return to the medieval concepts of children as simply little adults. But the parallel is even more subject to documentation than that. The homicide rate in the city of Amsterdam in the year 1450 is estimated to have been 150 per hundred thousand. By 1850, when Amsterdam had been ‘civilized,’ the rate dropped to 2 per hundred thousand. This rate might be taken as a kind of base line for the minimum expectable homicide rate, the rate we find in most of the modern and relatively affluent countries in the world. But in the US we continue to find rates of 20 per hundred thousand and in the most oppressed social environments within our society we find rates of 160 per hundred thousand!

Homicide rates provide only an imprecise indicator of the overall problem of violence in the lives of American children and youth, however, for behind each murder stand many nonlethal assaults. This ratio varies as a function of both medical trauma technology (which prevents assaults from becoming homicides) and weapons technology (which can increase or decrease the lethality of assaults). An example from Chicago illustrates this: the city’s homicide rate in 1973 and 1993 was approximately the same, and yet the rate of serious assault had increased approximately 400 percent during that period. Thus, the ratio of assaults to homicides increased substantially—from 1:100 in 1973 to 1:400 in 1993 (Garbarino et al. 1992).

Class, race, and gender exert important influences on exposure to community violence. The odds of being a homicide victim range from 1:21 for Black males, to 1:369 for white females—with white males at 1:13 and Black females at 1:104 (Bell and Jenkins 1993). Being an American itself is a risk factor. As noted above, the US far exceeds all other modern industrialized nations in its youth homicide rate (even for young whites, where the rate of 11.2 per 100,000 is far more than the second place country, Scotland, with 5 per 100,000 (Richters and Martinez 1993).

3. Exposure To Violence As An Influence On Development

Having established this historical and social context, what next becomes clear is that understanding the effects of violence on children is very much a matter of recognizing the developmental links between early experiences of violence as a victim and later experiences of violence as a perpetrator. This developmental relationship exists both within the lives of individual children and across the generations in families. Research indicates that inside virtually every dangerously violent youth is an untreated traumatized child, a child with experiences of violent victimization, and that the there is substantial cross-generational continuity in violence within families.

Research by psychiatrists Perry et al. (1995) and van der Kolk (1996) has begun to illuminate the neurological processes that translate early trauma into later dangerous behavior through brain development and neurochemistry. Dodge et al. (1997) have further elaborated this link by documenting the adaptive processes that link the experience of violence as a young child to the development of a pattern of aggressive antisocial behavior as an elementary school-age child. Their research reveals that the problems comes when abused children develop four particular psychological adaptations (hypersensitivity to negative social cues, obliviousness to positive social cues, a readily accessible repertoire of aggressive behavior, and a belief that aggression is a successful strategy in social relations). Such children are seven times more likely than abused children who do not develop these patterns to end upon diagnosed with ‘conduct disorder’ (chronic aggressive and antisocial behavior). Abused children who do not develop these patterns are no more likely that children in general to develop conduct disorder.

4. Children In War Zones

This is highly significant because it is from the ranks of children with conduct disorder that most chronic violent delinquents come (about a third of such children emerge as chronic violent delinquents according to a variety of studies—cf. Loeber and Farrington 1997). Child abuse and community violence are rampant in the lives of kids who become violent youth. This is one of the most important effects of violence on children. My own research illuminates these links through intensive, multiple interviews with boys involved in lethal violence (Garbarino 1999), and highlights the importance of geographic concentrations of violence that create ‘war zone’ like settings for children. These are the social settings in which the rates of child victimization is highest (with child maltreatment rates many times higher than in other neighborhoods—Garbarino et al. 1992) and from which most lethal youth violence comes (Snyder and Sickmund 1999).

Children living in neighborhoods which simulate war zones are exposed to high levels of violence. A survey of sixth to 10th graders in New Haven, Connecticut, revealed that 40 percent had witnessed at least one incident of violent crime within the previous 12 months (Marans and Cohen 1993). In three high risk neighborhoods in Chicago, 17 percent of the elementary school age children had witnessed domestic violence, 31 percent had seen someone shot, and, 84 percent had seen someone beat up (Bell and Jenkins 1993).

Some 30 percent of the kids living in high crime neighborhoods of major metropolitan areas like Chicago have witnessed a homicide by the time they are 15 years old, and more than 70 percent have witnessed a serious assault. These figures are much more like the experience of kids in the war zones we have visited in other countries (Garbarino et al. 1991) than they are of what we should expect for children, living in ‘peace.’ Richters and Martinez (1993) have amplified these results. In their study, 43 percent of the fifth and sixth graders had witnessed a mugging in a ‘moderately violent’ neighborhood in Washington, DC. Other researchers echo these findings (e.g., Taylor et al. 1994).

5. Children Adapt: For Better And For Worse

Children adapt to their perception of community safety in many important ways. One is their view of the future. A Harris poll of sixth to 12th graders in 1992 revealed that 35 percent worried they would not live to old age because they would be shot (Harris et al. 1994). In our interviews with families living in public housing projects in Chicago we learned that virtually all the children had first-hand experiences with shooting by the time they were five years old (Dubrow and Garbarino 1989). A six-year-old girl once said that her job was to find her two-year-old sister whenever the shooting started and get her to safety in the bathtub of their apartment. ‘The bathroom is the safest place,’ she said. Interviews with school-age children and youth confirm that the ‘gun culture’ is a potent factor in the life of children in diverse settings in the US (Garbarino 1995, 1999). Teen use of guns in homicides increased from 64 percent in 1987 to 78 percent in 1991. During the same period, teen arrests for crimes involving weapons increased 62 percent (Snyder and Sickmund 1995).

When children understand that adults cannot protect them they are left with what we might call juvenile vigilantism, the impulse to protect themselves, to take up weapons and relationships that substitute for adult protection. This is evident in comments from children and youth such as ‘If I join a gang I’m 50 percent safe. If I don’t join a gang I’m zero percent safe’ (Garbarino 1999). Adults don’t enter into the equation.

6. Risk Accumulates

The key to understanding the effects of living in a war zone is the recognition that these children do not simply face a single threat to development, a solitary risk factor. Rather, they face multiple risk factors, a fact of overarching importance in light of research by Sameroff et al. (1987) documenting the cumulative effect of risk factors. In Sameroff ’s study, while the presence of one or two risk factors was generally manageable for children, the presence of three or more risk factors was associated with significant developmental impairment. These are the children of greatest concern to us, the children who face major accumulations of risk factors, and who are thus most at risk for the psychological effects of trauma due to violence.

Tolan (1996) examined this phenomenon in detail in a study in a Chicago-based study in which he asked the question, ‘What percent of kids are resilient if we measure resilience as neither requiring mental health intervention or remedial education?’ When he asked that question of data from boys growing up in the most afflicted war zone neighborhoods of Chicago, living in abusive and impoverished families, contending with minority status in a racist society, and looked at this kids over a two-year period, the answer was zero percent. None of the children by age 15 were resilient in Tolan’s terms. This testifies to the effects of violence when they occur within a larger context of social and psychological risk accumulation. The relentless pressure imposed on kids who come from that nexus of community violence, family disruption, and personal experience of trauma is uniformly overwhelming.

7. Future Directions

As research on the impact of violence on children matures it turns increasingly to studies of the conditions under which alternative pathways are taken by affected children. Why do some child victims become adolescent perpetrators while others do not? How can early intervention change these pathways? How significant are the neurobiological effects of early trauma? These and other questions will require many years of sustained research to address adequately. Unfortunately, the world shows no signs of preventing childhood exposure to violence, so these questions must be answered.


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