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Children are the most victimized segment of the population

by Melissa Jonson-Reid, PhD, Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor in Social Work and Director of the Center for Violence and Injury Prevention at the Brown School

“Children are the most victimized segment of the population.”
– David Finkelhor, 2011

This is a sad but unfortunately true statement both for children in the US and those around the world.  What leads a researcher of child maltreatment to blog about kids and violence—particularly gun violence? Because, rather disturbingly, these are often the same children.

In a recent national US survey, 31% of youth in the US could be categorized as “poly-victims” (Finkelhor, 2011).  Of these, 40% were injured due to victimization, 42% had experienced some form of child maltreatment, and 25% had been victimized by someone carrying a weapon.

While we are correctly horrified by child victims and youth perpetrators of gun violence, many of our children experience multiple forms of violence across home, school, and community settings in addition to other adverse experiences and non-violent victimization like child neglect.

In February of 2017, a six-year old girl was killed by a sibling by the loaded gun left on the floor by her adult caregivers who had passed out after using drugs (Currier, 2017).  A case of both child neglect and gun violence as well as the adverse experience of having a parent with a substance abuse problem.

The connections between victimization and violence are not always simultaneous.

In a recent study following low-income children with histories of maltreatment compared to those who had no known maltreatment, over 10% of the children who experienced maltreatment had at least one ER episode due to assault or gunshot or attempted suicide during adolescence. Youth with these additional experiences were more likely to die due to accidental or intentional injury in young adulthood—more than 50% of those deaths were due to firearms (Jonson-Reid, Drake, & Kohl, 2017).

This is profoundly disturbing to me, not just because of the injuries seen, but because of the numerous often unseen harms.

In the 1940s a psychologist by the name of Abraham Maslow proposed a now almost universally known pyramid of human needs common to all of us. The bottom two layers are what he termed “basic needs” without which it was incredibly difficult to move on to creating and sustaining positive relationships, feeling accomplished and achieving our potential. These other aspects of the pyramid are rather fundamental to a productive citizenry and the development of healthy families and communities. Many children, particularly those living in poverty, face daily threats to their basic and safety needs.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that, in addition to the association with gun violence, the consequences of cumulative and multiple experiences of violence and adversity cross multiple domains of functioning (e.g., criminal justice, health, learning, mental health, etc.) are serious, often long-lasting (Finkelhor, 2011; Jonson-Reid, et al, 2012; Larkin, Shields & Anda, 2012) and costly (Cujpers et al, 2011; Fang et al, 2012).  BUT…there are things we can do—both preventive actions to better support families and children and evidence-based approaches to ameliorating harms when prevention fails.  The question is whether we have the political will.

In this time of debating budget priorities, it is important we not devolve into battles over which health or social problem is more important or deserving.  This is particularly key when faced with an issue like gun violence that has deep ties to how we (as a society) treat our children more generally and the disparities faced by certain populations.

John F. Kennedy said “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” I hope we will work together across disciplines and advocacy groups to send a better message to the future than the one we appear to be reading now from the past.