Violence Shrouded

55,000: Number of children and underage youth murdered in the U.S. since 1980.

Published in the Fall 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

Why do so few youths turn to professional helpers like social workers after being exposed to violence?

-By Neil Guterman

THE VIDEOTAPED MURDER of Derrion Albert on the South Side of Chicago in September merely brought to the public eye what has been a decades-long problem of devastating magnitude: the victimization of our youngest citizens. The total number of American soldiers killed in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2001 presently hovers around 5,000. Almost triple that number of children and youths— about 15,000—have been murdered here in the streets of America during that same period.

While these numbers are staggering, they in fact represent only a very small proportion of the 60 percent of American children recently estimated by the U.S. Department of Justice as direct victims or eyewitnesses to violence every year in the United States. Given the magnitude of the problem, why is it that children's exposure to community violence has remained so shrouded from public concern, and most especially from the vantage point of professional social work services, which may provide ameliorative or preventive support in the face of such experiences?

My earlier research troublingly found that victimized adolescents hold a lower likelihood than non-victimized adolescents of receiving professional mental health supports subsequent to their victimization, and that even when providing mental health services, clinical social workers commonly overlook their young clients' violence exposure when it occurs outside the home. Some researchers have reported that authorities who commonly mediate children's access to professional mental health services—parents or teachers, for example—may not define the problem of victimization outside the home as one requiring professional services, suggesting that there are significant external obstacles to receiving help in the wake of violence exposure.

Recently, my colleague Muhammad Haj-Yahia of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I undertook a study to ask victimized adolescents about the internal obstacles they may face in reaching out for help from others, particularly from mental health professionals like social workers. We surveyed almost 2,000 Israeli Jewish and Arab adolescents, asking them specifically about their experiences with community violence and whom they may have told if they did experience some violence outside the home.

In this study, now in press in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, we found that, similar to studies conducted in American urban settings, approximately 90 percent of both Arab and Jewish adolescents reported significant direct or eyewitnessed experiences with violence over the past year. And yet only 11 percent of Arab adolescents and only 4 percent of Jewish adolescents exposed to violence sought out a mental health professional like a social worker to help them cope with the aftermath of such experiences. Indeed, we found that only one out of three Arab and one out of four Jewish adolescents told anyone about their victimization experiences afterward.

When we asked what internal barriers stood in the way of reaching out for help, adolescents across both ethnic/national groups most commonly reported that they tried to avoid thinking about the experiences. Although this "cognitive minimization" strategy may have temporarily helped by pushing such painful experiences out of awareness, it dually served to inhibit the opportunity to receive any ameliorative support in the coping process. Adolescents also frequently told us that they often deliberately kept such experiences secret out of fear of further danger by divulging to others, and they also commonly said they felt they could handle the experience on their own, perhaps as a part of their burgeoning sense of autonomy, which developmental theory would predict.

Especially troubling for professional social workers, almost half of the adolescents exposed to violence across both ethnic/national groups also stated that they did not believe that telling someone about the experiences would in any way help them. Across studies, our findings seem to strongly reinforce the reality that social workers and victimized adolescents can engage in a "don't ask, don't tell" pattern that can obstruct bringing to light young people's victimization in order to provide potentially helpful assistance.

Taken as a whole, our findings indicate that the very widespread problem of youth victimization and exposure to violence outside the home is sorely underaddressed by professionals, not clearly defined as a problem to engage a professionalized service system, and remains largely shrouded from view. Yet from our experience with other forms of violence, such as domestic violence or child abuse, we know that until such problems are brought out into daylight and dealt with by practitioners, policymakers and the broader public, they tend to fester and purvey their own downward spiral of damage. Indeed, a growing body of findings continues to point out that violent victimization is one of the strongest predictors of future violent perpetration. Clearly we face a crossroads and urgent professional obligation to forge substantive progress in attending to youth victimization, both locally and beyond.

Neil Guterman is the Mose and Sylvia Firestone Professor at the School of Social Service Administration.