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How Violence Affects the Children Who Witness It

Kids who witness or experience violence are at risk for mental, physical, and behavioral issues. Intervention, in the form of counseling, could help stem the cycle of violence (and save taxpayer money).

Mourners, young and old, pay respects at the funeral of Tyshawn Lee, a 9-year-old boy killed in Chicago in 2015.   Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

Last week, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced he is drafting legislation intended to help identify children who experience or witness violence and connect them with some type of counseling. The senator told Politico that children identified in police reports of violent crimes would be eligible for this program. Though the logistics of the legislation haven’t been hammered out yet, experts say the bill could be a substantial step for the state to act on the psychological impact of violence on younger generations.

“[These children] have been through trauma that has affected them and their outlook on life,” Durbin told Politico. “It’s not uncommon when there’s been a horrible accident and kids die, counselors are called to help them deal with their grief and the trauma.”

Details are still sparse on Durbin’s proposal (as of last Wednesday, the senator’s spokeswoman said they needed a few more weeks to flesh it out), so Charles Ransford, director of science and policy at Cure Violence, is reserving judgment. But he did say passing such legislation could legitimize the link between violence and mental health disorders. He also sees it as an alternative way to reduce violence besides gun control, one that politicians on both sides of the aisle can get behind.

“It’s something else that everyone can agree is a factor in violence,” he says.

Research in the last few decades has shown how witnessing or being a victim of violence at a young age can have life-long effects, even causing post-traumatic stress disorder in some extreme cases. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the stress can lead to overreactions in otherwise low-stress situations or manifest as chronic physical pain. Those exposed to violence as children are more likely to indulge in risky behaviors like drug use and have trouble controlling their emotions or impulses. These risk factors predispose them to being involved in other violent situations in the future, causing the cycle of violence to continue.

In Chicago, PTSD is prevalent. A 2011 study at the Cook County Hospital found at 42 percent of patients examined showed signs of the disorder. More than half of those victims were gunshot victims.

While the study doesn’t state whether any patients were children, the shootings of cousins Taniyah Williams, 5, and Cory Bondurant, 8, over the Fourth of July weekend are a poignant recent example. The problem is not new—in 2013, This American Life told the sad tale of a high school where 29 students had been shot in the past year.

A working paper, last updated in 2014, from National Scientific Council on the Developing Child looks at the negative effects of violence on young people, and it also shows how “sensitive and responsive caregiving”—like counseling—could serve as a buffer for some of these effects.

Still, there are plenty of unknowns about Durbin’s proposal, and its efficacy will depend on its specifics.

Dr. Jaleel K. Abdul-Adil of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Dr. Bradley C. Stolbach of the University of Chicago are both interested and cautiously optimistic about the proposal. Stolbach, a trauma psychologist, says one of the biggest problems he sees the legislation facing is finding the funding and resources to provide adequate care.

“[The communities’] resources are scarce, and they’re constantly struggling to survive,” Stolbach says. With only six mental health clinics in Chicago, children may be waiting for months to see a counselor after a traumatic event.

Among other challenges the three experts cite: The term “violence” would need to be defined, and it may be difficult to both count and track every child affected by violence. Cultural insensitivity is a major concern, especially if the program is administered through the police department, considering the lack of trust between community members and officers. Children treated at hospitals outside of their neighborhoods may have trouble connecting with counselors.

Hiring and assigning police officers to work in their own communities, in addition to culture sensitivity training for police officers and counselors, could help, they say.

“We don’t want the illusion that any service is good service,” Abdul-Adil says.

Stolbach expects the bill’s upfront cost will be high, which he says will worry some. But he says the investment would likely save taxpayers money in the long run—particularly recouped from the criminal justice system.

For now, Ransford points out that police have “tried every tool in their toolbox” to deal with the city’s violence, and the mental health approach may provide necessary backup.

“I really think that [mental health] is the missing piece when it comes to Chicago.”

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