Exposure to violence is a national crisis that affects approximately two out of every
three of our children. Of the 76 million children currently residing in the United States,
an estimated 46 million can expect to have their lives touched by violence, crime,
abuse, and psychological trauma this year. In 1979, U.S. Surgeon General Julius
B. Richmond declared violence a public health crisis of the highest priority, and yet
33 years later that crisis remains. Whether the violence occurs in children’s homes,
neighborhoods, schools, playgrounds or playing fields, locker rooms, places of
worship, shelters, streets, or in juvenile detention centers, the exposure of children
to violence is a uniquely traumatic experience that has the potential to profoundly
derail the child’s security, health, happiness, and ability to grow and learn — with
effects lasting well into adulthood.
Exposure to violence in any form harms children, and different forms of
violence have different negative impacts.
Sexual abuse places children at high risk for serious and chronic health problems,
including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, suicidality, eating disorders, sleep disorders, substance abuse, and deviant sexual behavior. Sexually
abused children often become hypervigilant about the possibility of future sexual
violation, experience feelings of betrayal by the adults who failed to care for and
Physical abuse puts children at high risk for lifelong problems with medical illness,
PTSD, suicidality, eating disorders, substance abuse, and deviant sexual behavior.
Physically abused children are at heightened risk for cognitive and developmental
impairments, which can lead to violent behavior as a form of self-protection and control.
These children often feel powerless when faced with physical intimidation, threats, or
conflict and may compensate by becoming isolated (through truancy or hiding) or
aggressive (by bullying or joining gangs for protection). Physically abused children are
at risk for significant impairment in memory processing and problem solving and for
developing defensive behaviors that lead to consistent avoidance of intimacy.
Intimate partner violence within families puts children at high risk for severe and
potentially lifelong problems with physical health, mental health, and school and peer
relationships as well as for disruptive behavior. Witnessing or living with domestic or
intimate partner violence often burdens children with a sense of loss or profound guilt
and shame because of their mistaken assumption that they should have intervened
or prevented the violence or, tragically, that they caused the violence. They frequently
castigate themselves for having failed in what they assume to be their duty to protect
a parent or sibling(s) from being harmed, for not having taken the place of their
horribly injured or killed family member, or for having caused the offender to be
violent. Children exposed to intimate partner violence often experience a sense of
terror and dread that they will lose an essential caregiver through permanent injury
or death. They also fear losing their relationship with the offending parent, who may
be removed from the home, incarcerated, or even executed. Children will mistakenly
blame themselves for having caused the batterer to be violent. If no one identifies
these children and helps them heal and recover, they may bring this uncertainty, fear,
grief, anger, shame, and sense of betrayal into all of their important relationships for
the rest of their lives.
Community violence in neighborhoods can result in children witnessing assaults
and even killings of family members, peers, trusted adults, innocent bystanders, and
perpetrators of violence. Violence in the community can prevent children from feeling
safe in their own schools and neighborhoods. Violence and ensuing psychological
trauma can lead children to adopt an attitude of hypervigilance, to become experts at
detecting threat or perceived threat — never able to let down their guard in order to
be ready for the next outbreak of violence. They may come to believe that violence is
“normal,” that violence is “here to stay,” and that relationships are too fragile to trust
because one never knows when violence will take the life of a friend or loved one.
They may turn to gangs or criminal activities to prevent others from viewing them
as weak and to counteract feelings of despair and powerlessness, perpetuating the
cycle of violence and increasing their risk of incarceration. They are also at risk for
becoming victims of intimate partner violence in adolescence and in adulthood.
The picture becomes even more complex when children are “polyvictims” (exposed
to multiple types of violence). As many as 1 in 10 children in this country are
polyvictims, according to the Department of Justice and Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention’s groundbreaking National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence
(NatSCEV). The toxic combination of exposure to intimate partner violence, physical
abuse, sexual abuse, and/or exposure to community violence increases the risk and
severity of posttraumatic injuries and mental health disorders by at least twofold and
up to as much as tenfold. Polyvictimized children are at very high risk for losing the
fundamental capacities necessary for normal development, successful learning, and
a productive adulthood.
The financial costs of children’s exposure to violence are astronomical. The
financial burden on other public systems, including child welfare, social services,
law enforcement, juvenile justice, and, in particular, education, is staggering when
combined with the loss of productivity over children’s lifetimes.
It is time to ensure that our nation’s past inadequate response to children’s exposure
to violence does not negatively affect children’s lives any further. We must not allow
violence to deny any children their right to physical and mental health services or
to the pathways necessary for maturation into successful students, productive
workers, responsible family members, and parents and citizens.
We can stem this epidemic if we commit to a strong national response. The longterm negative outcomes of exposure to violence can be prevented, and children
exposed to violence can be helped to recover. Children exposed to violence can
heal if we identify them early and give them specialized services, evidence-based
treatment, and proper care and support. We have the power to end the damage to
children from violence and abuse in our country; it does not need to be inevitable.
We, as a country, have the creativity, knowledge, leadership, economic resources,
and talent to effectively intervene on behalf of children exposed to violence. We can
provide these children with the opportunity to recover and, with hard work, to claim
their birthright … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We invest in the future of
our nation when we commit ourselves as citizens, service providers, and community
members to helping our children recover from exposure to violence and ending all
forms of violence in their lives.
To prepare this report, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder commissioned a task
force of diverse leaders dedicated to protecting children from exposure to violence
and to healing those who were exposed. The report calls for action by the federal
government, states, tribes, communities, and the private sector across the country
to marshal the best available knowledge and all of the resources needed to defend
all of our children against exposure to violence. The Attorney General’s task force
asks all readers of this report to imagine a safe country for our children’s creative,
healthy development and to join together in developing a national plan to foster that
The findings and recommendations of the task force are organized into six chapters.
The first chapter provides an overview of the problem and sets forth 10 foundational
recommendations. The next two chapters offer a series of recommendations to
ensure that we reliably identify, screen, and assess all children exposed to violence
and thereafter give them support, treatment, and other services designed to address
their needs. In the fourth and fifth chapters, the task force focuses on prevention and
emphasizes the importance of effectively integrating prevention, intervention, and
resilience across systems by nurturing children through warm, supportive, loving,
and nonviolent relationships in our homes and communities. In the sixth and final
chapter of this report, the task force calls for a new approach to juvenile justice, one
that acknowledges that the vast majority of the children involved in that system have
been exposed to violence, necessitating the prioritization of services that promote
The challenge of children’s exposure to violence and ensuing psychological trauma
is not one that government alone can solve. The problem requires a truly national
response that draws on the strengths of all Americans. Our children’s futures are
at stake. Every child we are able to help recover from the impact of violence is
an investment in our nation’s future. Therefore, this report calls for a collective
investment nationwide in defending our children from exposure to violence and
psychological trauma, in healing families and communities, and in enabling all of
our children to imagine and claim their safe and creative development and their
productive futures. The time for action is now. Together, we must take this next step
and build a nation whose communities are dedicated to ending children’s exposure
to violence and psychological trauma. To that end, the task force offers the following recommendations.
For full text, use this link: http://www.justice.gov/defendingchildhood/cev-rpt-full.pdf