Published in the Fall 2007 issue of SSA Magazine

When children are exposed to violence outside the home, it has significant developmental effects

by Chelan David

The consequences of inner-city youth being exposed to community violence may be more significant then previously imagined. Findings by Dexter Voisin, an associate professor at SSA, suggest that violence exposure among African-American youth is a conduit to psychological distress, low school achievement, negative peer involvement, and risky sexual behaviors.

"It appears that exposure to violence is not just a one-time event," Voisin says. "The effects of violence affect adolescents in many ways: It affects them psychologically; it affects them in terms of their ability to perform at school academically; and it also influences the type of friends they associate with." His article entitled, "The Effects of Family and Community Violence Exposure Among Youth: Recommendations for Practice and Policy," appeared in the Journal of Social Work Education (2007).

Community violence, defined as violence that happens outside the home, takes many forms. In inner cities, it can include witnessing or being a victim ofa robbery, witnessing or being a victim of a mugging, sexual assaults, and witnessing gang-related deaths.

The genesis of Voisin's latest findings began more than a decade ago, when his research found that there was a consistent pattern of association between high levels of violence and youth engaging in higher levels of sexual risk-taking behavior. One study Voisin conducted involved multiethnic youth aged 14-19 years old in New York City, where he found that victims of community violence were almost four times more likely than their nonvictim peers to have had sex without condoms, to have engaged in sex after drug use, and to have had group sex.

Next, Voisin set out to determine what factors were responsible for this correlation. By looking at pathways— factors that might explain why and how community violence exposure affects teenagers—he discovered that those who reported high levels of community violence also reported high levels of psychological distress. Psychological distress, in turn, was associated with low school achievement.

"Previous studies have looked at some of these relationships in a vacuum," Voisin explains. "What our research has done is show that the relationship between community violence and psychological distress is not a final outcome and that the relationship between community violence and low school achievement is not a final outcome. These forms are actually interconnected. We've found that psychological distress is the pathway through which community violence is connected to low school achievement."

The study also found notably high levels of exposure to community violence, particularly for African-American youth. Of the 600 African-American Chicago high school students interviewed by Voisin for his latest study, nearly a quarter reported being a victim of a robbery or mugging and nearly half witnessed a gang-related injury or death. Startlingly, nearly a third of the participants indicated they had witnessed a dead body in their community not related to a funeral. African- American youth are anywhere from 7- 10 times more likely than their white peers to be exposed to violent crimes such as homicides, muggings, and robberies, and 30 percent of the males in Voisin's research study reported some involvement in gangs.

The issue of inner-city violence has been intensely scrutinized in Chicago during a recent run of gang violence that has claimed the lives of over two dozen Chicago Public School students from last September to date. Since the onset of the murders, Voisin has given perspective on his work to CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times. "There was quite a bit of response in terms of the media and community trying to understand what is responsible for these patterns of violence; however, it is equally important for this attention to be sustained and translated into some visible corrective action steps by the powers that be," Voisin says.

In most instances, however, inner city violence doesn't make headline news. "Community violence very often goes unrecognized and undocumented by educators, social work providers, and even parents," he says.

Voisin hopes the consequences of his work include drawing more attention to the developmental consequences of community violence. "The effects of violence exposure don't start with the actual event," he says. "There is a whole sequel, a negative lingering aftermath, as a result of being exposed to violence."