Children Exposed to Crime Rarely Get Needed Services: Study

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Children are more deeply affected by crime, both directly and indirectly, than previously realized, a sobering new research paper from University of Pennsylvania Law School has found.

And while most states provide services for children affected by crime, a world-class bureaucratic labyrinth makes it extremely difficult for anyone, particularly parents who are not highly educated, to access these programs.

Yet not providing counseling and other help for these children is a step almost certain to cause more lasting damage both to the helpless minors and to society in the long term.

The study, conducted by Michal Gilad, looked at five categories of impact across 50 states: children’s direct victimization by crime, witnessing crime in the family, witnessing crime in the community, parents being hurt by crime, and parents being incarcerated. While no one thinks that a crime committed against a child won’t cause psychological harm, the report found that even indirect exposure, such as witnessing violence in the community, damages children because of the plasticity of their developing brains and lack of emotional maturity.

“The documented harm ranges from physical and mental health problems to increased risk for learning disabilities, behavioral problems, repeat victimization, juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, and substance abuse,” writes Gilad.

Moreover, the problem is much more widespread than most people may think. The study found that “nearly half of the minor children living in the United States today” have been victimized or exposed to crime in their home or community each year.

And yet, “even when identified, only a minuscule minority ever receive services or treatment to facilitate recovery.” While Gilad was surprised and heartened to discover through a newly designed survey that in the majority of the 50 states, services are in place to help children in four of the five crime-impact categories (the exception being children of incarcerated parents), an extremely challenging bureaucratic labyrinth exists.

Even in conducting the survey for her report, Gilad found that contact information for agencies serving children was hard to come by; phone numbers and emails were withheld reportedly for security reasons and “phone contact frequently proved to be futile, as the caller seeking information is transferred from one person to another until reaching a dead end, usually a voice mail filled to capacity.”

In a disturbingly large number of cases, once Gilad was able to communicate with an agency worker, there was lack of awareness of statutorily mandated victim-assistance funds for necessary services. Lack of coordination, and stakeholders not speaking the same language, was apparent.

This report poses the chilling scenario: “Imagine a child in desperate need for assistance to overcome trauma in this environment. The child must depend almost solely on a lay parent with no professional skills, and often with only minimal education and resources, to go through the daunting journey through the thorny terrain of the system.”

The difficulty in finding out how to help children victimized by crime raises the possibility that “these persistent and reoccurring system design flaws and administrative roadblocks are not entirely coincidental,” and are saving states money in the short term, the report says.

“Unfortunately, an evidence-based examination of the problem indicates that such short-term savings are likely to result in epic long-term costs borne by tax payers and society,” Gilad writes.

A full copy of the report can be obtained here. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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