The problem of children’s exposure to violence is urgent — and we can’t afford to ignore it.
One particularly brutal photo from the Boston marathon bombing was of a young man whose tourniqueted legs were savagely mangled by the blast. Unless you are a trauma surgeon, you winced at the sight of him. My daughter showed me the picture. It struck me that this was the type of violent image children of a certain age should see. I don’t believe in shielding eyes from evidence of some of man’s savageries. I sat there feeling quite magnanimous about my position. Twenty minutes later, in a Google hole, I’m reading an article about youth exposed to violence, and I learned what a very great luxury it is to have Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan be my children’s first and possibly only exposure to grave violence.
According to a study completed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012, homicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24. That’s astounding. In-person exposure to violence is much broader: an estimated 46 million American children are exposed to violence, crime and abuse each year. Two thirds of the children milling about us are regularly exposed to violence that my kids — and, statistically speaking, your kids — will likely never see. The Justice Department’s report makes some recommendations to combat this problem — things like expanding access to home-visiting services, collaborations by law enforcement and mental health providers, parenting services and counseling. There are others — incentivizing health care and insurance providers to reimburse trauma-focused services, for example — that bypass the whim of family members and could increase care for child victims.
But the point, ultimately, is to reach the child, whether witness or victim. The results of failure to do so can be drastic.
I’m not simply appealing to your sense of parenthood. The financial costs are colossal. The burden on the health care system alone ranges from $333 to $750 billion annually. Other systems — schools, social services, law enforcement — are similarly strained. Though the actual cost is more difficult to nail down, talk to any teacher in a distressed public school and you’ll have all the anecdotal evidence you need. That’s what I did.
“Do these kinds of governmental initiatives work?” I asked my friend Erin, a third grade teacher at a failing school in Lafayette Parish that regularly deals with violent, disruptive students. “I think they mean well,” she began, “but, bottom line, if the parents don’t show up, or [if they] express disdain for these programs, these meetings, you know what that tells the kid, right? That the meeting doesn’t matter, and, worse, that the kid doesn’t matter. And if no one’s participating, nothing has a chance to work.”
The bottom line is that lack of participation would kill 60 percent of the recommendations offered by the Justice Department.
It is probably common knowledge that victims are at high risk of suffering chronic and severe psychiatric problems. But did you know that when exposure to violence is chronic, a child can suffer long-lasting changes in brain anatomy and physiology? That exposure to violence in the first years of childhood deprives children of as much as 10 percent of their potential IQ?
Looking at the typical timeline makes these results less abstract: when a child is exposed over time as either a witness or a victim, in the home or in his community, to sexual or physical abuse, they predictably feel fear, anxiety, anger, guilt and shame. If no one steps in to effectively provide some measure of sanity and light, the child adopts the attitude of a survivor, relying solely on themselves for safety and to cope with this overwhelming despair. They begin to constantly anticipate danger and pain, behaving from a near-constant state of high alert. They eventually refuse to trust anyone.
This is isn’t just depressing to consider. Neuroscience has proven that such survival coping seriously inhibits a child’s development: the “violence-exposed brain” becomes expert at threat detection and survival while those areas of the brain that support the ability to solve problems, gain confidence, socially succeed and gain self-control may not develop to full capacity. As the Justice Department report puts it: “These children’s brains are not faulty or broken; they are stuck in a perpetual state of readiness to react without thinking to even the smallest threat.”
Do we understand what that can do to a classroom? I’m getting a better idea.
So if institutional solutions are inadequate, what works? I found a handful of powerful solutions in the oddest of places: a courtroom.
Next month, I’ll outline the veritable shards of light I found there. There is hope.
Celeste White is a 34-year-old mother of two who practices law in Lafayette and enjoys reading and running.