America’s Youngest Crime Victims

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Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

In today’s world, crime penetrates the lives of children from many sources. They witness violence at school, in the neighborhood, or even in the “safety” of their home. Children may also be affected indirectly, when parents fall victims to crime, or when a parent is incarcerated.

The unique developmental, social and cultural characteristics of children make them particularly prone to the negative forces of crime. Childhood crime exposure leaves deep scars that gravely affect mental and physical health, as well as life outcomes.[i]

To raise awareness of this dire and often neglected phenomenon, I coined the term the Triple-C Impact, or Comprehensive Childhood Crime Impact.[ii]

Unfortunately, despite the severity of the Triple-C Impact, not enough has been done to address it —and to heal the open wounds it has left on millions of children nationwide. No effective mechanisms to identify affected children and refer them to vital services that can aid their recovery are currently in place.

Although resources and services for affected children exist in most states, access is obstructed by a myriad of bureaucratic hurdles and flaws in the system’s design.

As a result, the majority of children harmed by crime do not receive treatment that can help them overcome the trauma. For more on this, please click here.

While we impatiently wait for policy-makers to take notice of the problem and implement systemic solutions on the state and federal level, there is a lot that can be done on the organizational and even individual level to address the problem.

On the organizational level, a broad range of agencies and organizations come into daily direct contact with Triple-C Impacted children and families. These include law enforcement agencies, prosecution agencies, public defenders, courts, juvenile correction facilities, foster care agencies and child protective services, victim advocacy organizations, non-governmental service providers, and other organizations funded under the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA).

Other highly relevant entities are adult correctional facilities (particularly women’s facilities), homeless and women’s shelters, schools, hospitals and clinics.

Such organizations can raise awareness among employees who come in contact with affected children and families. One effective strategy is to provide periodic staff-training sessions and to distribute comprehensive information on the effect of crime exposure on children, on the different forms of exposure that have the potential to cause harm, and about common signs of exposure.

To enable regular and systematic identification, protocols should be put in place to guide practitioners to pay attention to these signs, and ask relevant questions when interacting with the at-risk populations. Groups who warrant special attention are domestic violence victims, crime victims who may have minor children, female inmates, youths in juvenile facilities, children and youth in foster care, children who provide testimony before courts or other investigative agencies, and the homeless.

Readily available handouts that explain in simple language the risks of the Triple-C Impact and the value of early intervention are invaluable. Parents with the best intentions are often unaware of seemingly trivial information, for example, that “simply” witnessing a crime, or even parental victimization that the child is not aware of, can potentially cause significant harm that can be alleviated with treatment.

A good example is a toolkit developed for law enforcement by the federal Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Protection and the Yale Medicine Child Study Center.

The ability to refer to services and provide information on locally available resources and services is also critical, considering the access barriers in place in most jurisdictions.

Lastly, any actions taken to promote communication and collaboration between the different governmental and non-governmental agencies and organizations operating in the field can help us leap forward in the ability to serve the Triple-C Impacted children.

Developing a fruitful cross-agency exchange can enhance the efforts taken to serve affected children. It can raise awareness of available initiatives, enable mutual referrals, adopt a uniform terminology for a more fluent and effective communication. Such exchange will also open opportunities to develop inter-agency strategies to address the problem, facilitate the provision of more rounded and holistic services, and allow us to learn and grow from the trials and experiences of others.

Such actions cost very little. But they would make a significant difference in our ability to serve children and families affected by the Triple-C Impact.

This is particularly vital in a political environment in which systemic actions on the federal level as well as most states are unlikely to occur in the near future.

Even if an agency is not inclined to act, highly effective— yet simple—actions can be taken on the individual level, without organizational support.

  • Learn the warning signs to identify affected children, and educate others around you, colleagues and clients alike.
  • Ask questions: Gently and compassionately inquire about involvement of children in relevant cases.[iii]
  • Know the law: Make sure you understand what the laws in your jurisdiction say about the issue: Which categories of children are eligible for services? What are the eligibility criteria? What are the relevant procedures? Know which agencies in your state are charged with service application and provision.
  • Understand internal guidelines\policies. Many vital details relevant to eligibility and application procedures are hidden in the guidelines and are not part of the published information. Find a specific contact person at relevant agencies, and update your contact list annually, since staff turnover is frequent and common.
  • When possible, initiate contact on behalf of the victim or parents. Your chances of obtaining information are almost always better than those of your clients. Help the clients complete the application process and follow through until a favorable decision is made.

Never forget that the actions of one person can be life-changing for many, especially when children in the direst of circumstances and their whole life ahead of them are involved.

Although the opportunity to improve the life of even one child is a good enough reason to act, we must remember that the effect of the Triple-C Impact is not isolated to individual children.

Michal Gilad

Michal Gilad

With millions of children across the nation untreated and hampered from conducting a healthy and productive lifestyle, and with their heightened risk for acute health problems, substance abuse, criminal behavior, and repeat victimization, community safety is inevitably compromised, and public funds are unnecessarily burdened.

Thus, taking action to identify affected children and to increase their accessibility to existing resources and services can have a positive effect on society as a whole.

Michal Gilad is a doctoral researcher with the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her research focuses on the adaptation of legal policies to the developmental needs of children and adolescents. Michal has clerked for the Hon. Justice Edna Arbel of the Supreme Court of Israel. She also practiced law as a public prosecutor, and served as a policy attaché for the State Attorney of Israel. Please click here for other examples of her work. She welcomes readers’ comments.


[i] Although each and every child is unique and is affected differently, a hefty multifarious assemblage of negative symptoms and outcomes are repeatedly documented among children affected by crime exposure. These include developmental and behavioral problems; attention disorders; attachment disorders; learning disabilities; and poor educational and employment outcomes. These children also suffer from increased risk for repeat victimization, mental health problems, and greater likelihood to engage in criminal activity.  They are more inclined to practice risk behaviors, including alcoholism, drug abuse, smoking, suicide attempts, sexually promiscuous behavior, and unintended pregnancies. A strong link between childhood crime exposure and life threatening health conditions, such as cancer, lung, heart, liver and skeletal diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, and obesity, was also established.



[iii] e.g. domestic Violence cases, parental victimization, child victims with siblings, juvenile cases. 

One thought on “America’s Youngest Crime Victims

  1. In the 1980s (81>87) I was the Commander of the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team. During an invited lecture to professional staff at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in NY I urged the attendees to pay attention to the children exposed to violence during hostage situations. No one followed up with me to explore the matter! /s/ Robert J. Louden, PhD. Professor Emeritus, CJ, Georgian Court University. (NYPD 1966-1987 – retired)

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