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Building a better road to recovery for child victims

April 8, 2016

April 10-16 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The following is a guest op-ed from the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime in partnership with the National Center for Victims of Crime.

More and more, we are recognizing the lifelong implications of childhood experiences. Of children who have been victimized, almost two-thirds (64.5%) have been victimized more than once in their lifetime. These repeatedly victimized children are at increased risk for adversity and distress, which is why we need comprehensive victim-centered assessment and care. Without this, many of these children will be further victimized or go on to commit crimes themselves, continuing the victim-perpetrator cycle. Service providers must work together to address the effects of polyvictimization.

Children and teens are at risk for a wide variety of victimization—abuse or neglect in the home, bullying or dating violence at school, sexual abuse or exploitation, or exposure to violence at home or in the street. Polyvictimization occurs when an individual experiences multiple forms of victimization such as bullying at school and abuse in the home. While a single victimization event can cause harm, research shows that polyvictimization causes greater and longer lasting harm than exposure to one type of crime or abuse. This remains true even if the one type of crime or abuse happens repeatedly over time.

Polyvictimized children often face substantial threats to safety, stability, and support in their home, school, and community. They are left without a safe space to take refuge. Living in a constant atmosphere of stress and adversity is believed to limit children’s self-esteem, ability to cope, and sense of control. Polyvictims show much higher levels of distress, including anxiety, depression, anger, and PTSD. They are also more likely to experience other hardships throughout their lifetime including illnesses, accidents, family unemployment, parental substance abuse, and mental illness. This increases the likelihood that they will commit crimes as an adult.

Traditionally, when victim service providers, child welfare agencies, schools, mental health providers, and others have worked with child victims, they treat only one form of victimization such as the trauma sustained from sexual abuse. This narrow focus regards victimization as an episode, a passing moment in the child’s life rather than the condition of the child’s entire lifetime. This failure to recognize the child’s life condition severely limits the ability of service providers to restore a sense of safety for the victim and to respond to that victim’s complex trauma. It is critical that victim service providers broaden their focus and further assess the child’s situation to ensure that there aren’t additional pieces of the puzzle that need to be addressed.

This growing understanding of polyvictimization has important implications for the way we respond to child and teen victims. While there are growing numbers of programs to prevent and respond to the victimization of children and teens, these programs have developed largely in isolation from one another. Agencies and organizations must work together and develop strategies to respond to polyvictimization. If service providers assess a child for multiple forms of victimization, they can more adequately respond to the child’s needs, perhaps guiding the child away from a future where they, in turn, commit crimes. This would lessen crime rates in their community.

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (April 10-16, 2016) offers an opportunity to increase awareness of this issue, reach and serve polyvictimized children, and develop a more evidence-informed approach. The well-being of today’s children, and tomorrow’s adults, depends on it.