Justice Department officials said Wednesday that most children in the United States are exposed to violence in their daily lives but a leading criminologist warned the government-sponsored survey may be lumping serious and minor incidents together.
More than 60 percent of children surveyed were exposed to violence within the past year, either directly or indirectly, according to data compiled by the department. The survey’s authors defined exposure to violence as being a victim, or having witnessed violence, or learning about violence against a relative, friend, or hearing about a threat to their school or home.
That approach raised questions for some. “What concerns me when you hear numbers like this is that in their attempt to be inclusive, which is commendable, the definition of violence becomes so broad that the results lack real meaning,” said James Alan Fox, criminal justice professor at Northeastern University. “If you broaden the definition of violence so much, then most people will be included.”
Nearly half of all children surveyed were assaulted at least once in the past year, and about 6 percent were victimized sexually, the survey found.
One in five of those between the ages of 14 and 17 reported they had seen a shooting.
“Those numbers are astonishing, and they are unacceptable,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in Chicago, where he was meeting with local officials to discuss the disturbing beating death of high school student Derrion Albert by other teens. “We simply cannot stand for an epidemic of violence that robs our youth of their childhood and perpetuates a cycle in which today’s victims become tomorrow’s criminals,” Holder said.
Among the survey’s other findings:
Nearly one in ten children said they saw one family member assault another in the past year.
More than one-half of the children, about 57 percent, reported having been assaulted at some point in their life.
Thirteen percent reported having been physically bullied in the last year.
The results were based on telephone interviews of 4,549 kids and adolescents aged 17 and younger between January and May of 2008. For children ages 9 and younger, a parent or guardian answered the questions. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence was sponsored by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, with help from the Centers for Disease Control. It was conducted by university researchers.