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Helping Children Exposed to Violence

By Lydia Long PhD. | January 1, 2013

Exposureto violence is a national crisis that affects approximately two out of every three of our children. Of the 76million children currently residing in the United States, an estimated 46 millioncan expect to have their lives touched by violence, crime, abuse, andpsychological trauma this year. Whether the violence occurs in children’shomes, neighborhoods, schools, playgrounds or playing fields, locker rooms,places of worship, shelters, streets, or in juvenile detention centers, theexposure of children to violence is a uniquely traumatic experience that hasthe potential to profoundly derail the child’s security, health, happiness, andability to grow and learn — with effects lasting well into adulthood. Exposure to violence in any form harms children, anddifferent forms of violence have different negative impacts. {{more}} Sexualabuse places children at high risk forserious and chronic health problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder ,depression, suicidality, eating disorders, sleep disorders, substance abuse,and deviant sexual behavior. Physicalabuse puts children at high risk for lifelongproblems with medical illness, PTSD, suicidality, eating disorders, substanceabuse, and deviant sexual behavior. Physically abused children are atheightened risk for cognitive and developmental impairments, which can lead toviolent behavior as a form of self-protection and control. Intimate partner violence within families puts children at highrisk for severe and potentially lifelong problems with physical health, mentalhealth, and school and peer relationships as well as for disruptive behavior.Witnessing or living with domestic or intimate partner violence often burdenschildren with a sense of loss or profound guilt and shame because of theirmistaken assumption that they should have intervened or prevented the violenceor, tragically, that they caused the violence. They also fear losing theirrelationship with the offending parent, who may be removed from the home,incarcerated, or even executed. Children will mistakenly blame themselves forhaving caused the batterer to be violent. Communityviolence in neighborhoods can result in childrenwitnessing assaults and even killings of family members, peers, trusted adults,innocent bystanders, and perpetrators of violence. Violence in the communitycan prevent children from feeling safe in their own schools and neighborhoods.They may come to believe that violence is “normal,” that violence is “here tostay,” and that relationships are too fragile to trust because one never knowswhen violence will take the life of a friend or loved one. They may turn togangs or criminal activities to prevent others from viewing them as weak and tocounteract feelings of despair and powerlessness, perpetuating the cycle ofviolence and increasing their risk of incarceration. The picture becomes even more complexwhen children are “polyvictims” . As many as 1 in 10 children in thiscountry are polyvictims. The toxic combination of exposure to intimate partnerviolence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and/or exposure to community violenceincreases the risk and severity of posttraumatic injuries and mental healthdisorders by at least twofold and up to as much as tenfold. Polyvictimizedchildren are at very high risk for losing the fundamental capacities necessaryfor normal development, successful learning, and a productive adulthood. Thefinancial costs of children’s exposure to violence are astronomical. Thefinancial burden on other public systems, including child welfare, socialservices, law enforcement, juvenile justice, and, in particular, education, isstaggering when combined with the loss of productivity over children’slifetimes. It is time to ensure that our nation’spast inadequate response to children’s exposure to violence does not negativelyaffect children’s lives any further. We must not allow violence to deny anychildren their right to physical and mental health services or to the pathwaysnecessary for maturation into successful students, productive workers,responsible family members, and parents and citizens.  Wecan stem this epidemic if we commit to a strong national response. Thelong-term negative outcomes of exposure to violence can be prevented, andchildren exposed to violence can be helped to recover. Children exposed toviolence can heal if we identify them early and give them specialized services,evidence-based treatment, and proper care and support. The challenge of children’s exposure toviolence and ensuing psychological trauma is not one that government alone cansolve. The problem requires a truly national response that draws on thestrengths of all Americans. Our children’s futures are at stake. Every child weare able to help recover from the impact of violence is an investment in ournation’s future.  The time for action isnow. Together, we must take this next step and build a nation whose communitiesare dedicated to ending children’s exposure to violence and psychologicaltrauma.   LydiaM. Long, PhD. Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice, McMurry University.  The information in this summary is based onDefending Childhood, Protect Heal and Thrive a 2012 Report of the Attorney General’sNational Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence