by Jesus Vasquez, MSW, November 2015
Violence in the community is a major social issue, as it affects those in large cities, small communities, schools, poor communities and also well to do neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, many of the victims of community violence are children and adolescents. Many of today’s acts of violence are perpetrated by youth, boys and girls alike, who have been either victims of community violence or exposed to violent acts themselves. Exposure to this community violence, either being a direct victim of the violence or witnessing the recurrence of violent acts firsthand, can have many psychosocial and emotional effects of those affected. Children and adolescents who have been exposed to violent or hostile behavior have been found to suffer from depression and aggression as well as other serious mental health problems.
Effects of Community Violence on Children and Adolescents
Among children and adolescents, many indicators have been associated with the exposure to community violence. Responses to traumatic events vary according to an individual’s age, developmental level, proximity to event, and emotional closeness to victim or perpetrator. As you can imagine school age children, are the most vulnerable exposure to violence at an early age can have long term effects if the cycle of violence is continuous and there is re-victimization.
In this population of school aged children, some typical responses to trauma can include cognitive deficits, depression, clinginess, regression, sleep difficulties, social, emotional and behavioral difficulties, anxiety, helplessness and desensitization. In older children and adolescents, common symptoms include the above, along with aggression, withdrawal, and physical symptoms. For all intents and purposes these young victims can become desensitized to constant trauma and themselves become the aggressors and perpetrators of violent acts in the future. This can also lead to other maladaptive behaviors to cope with such traumas such as using alcohol and drugs.
Identifying Victims of Community Violence
As social workers working with children and adolescents we must be keen and insightful when assessing for indicators regarding exposure and the effects of community violence. Warning signs such as sleep problems, irritability, avoidance and poor school performance can go unnoticed or are being overlooked, and in many cases, children lack the social supports surrounding the issues of community violence. We must also be mindful that we do not judge those living in poverty any differently than those children living in gated communities. Often times it is easier to overlook indicators of community violence because a child lives in an upscale neighborhood. Children can be reluctant to talk with their parents or other adults concerning their experiences with violence and trauma. This is especially true if there is violence in their home. This can lead to parents and other stakeholders such as teachers, social workers, and mental health professionals being largely unaware of the violence that is being witnessed and experienced by these children and youth.
Until the issue of community violence is known by these community stakeholders, intervention is much less likely to occur and children will continue to suffer from the effects of the traumatic experiences. Social workers can also be pro- active and be supportive and work with community leaders to encourage parents and youth that have been dealing or living with community violence to be a part of the solution by addressing how supports can intervene.
School social workers can come up with creative ways to address the issues of gang violence in and around school and neighboring areas. Community stakeholders can also work with the police department and faith based programs to help children and youth actively become part of church programs, sports clubs, and neighborhood programs (Big Brothers & Big Sisters, Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA). This on a whole can create a much safer and cohesive community and neighborhoods.
Some solutions that could have long term positive outcomes could include program that employ social worker help train those caregivers about the effects of exposure to violence. Mental health professionals, social workers, law enforcement and the community need to work together to develop programs which address the increasing amount of community violence and its effect on children and adolescents. Educate school workers such as teachers and school aides about the effects that violence can have on a child and their educational development. Work in collaboration with childcare centers to train workers about indicators of violence in the community especially those areas affected most by high crime, drug abuse, and poverty. Community and school based programs need to be available to offer support and education from the Kindergarten level through High School. School based programs could educate children on conflict resolution, how to avoid gangs, and how to avoid peer pressure, in an attempt to avoid further violence.
Violence within communities continues to grow and unfortunately these children cannot choose to avoid it. If the community and professionals are able to work together to reduce the amount of violence being witnessed in the community, it will lead to more positive outcomes in the community regarding community violence and children’s exposure to it. Social workers can assist with helping those that have been exposed and vulnerable children who cannot run and hide from it. Social workers must be there to pick up the pieces, offer support, help families and individuals deal with the violence and it’s after affects. This will lead to more positive outcomes for the sake of kids and their communities.
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