Reducing the Risk of Violence in Children's Lives

National conference on children calls for grass-roots involvement, a greater sense of caring

After she was raped at age 7 by her mother's boyfriend, poet Maya Angelou did not speak a word for six years. Three days after the incident, the rapist had been found kicked to death.

"I thought my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking," she recalls. "I was afraid if I spoke, my voice would go out and kill people randomly ... the lady in a green dress ... the man in black shoes."

Returned to the care of a nurturing grandmother who stroked her hair and shoulders and spoke of harnessing inner strengths to face the wide world, Ms. Angelou eventually started speaking again.

"What [Granma] fashioned for me was a world so wide that I could stand in any country and any company and know that everything's perfectly all right ... I have been loved," Angelou recalled.

Speaking before a national forum of leading experts on children and violence just concluded here, Angelou used her story to underline a growing national consensus that children learn violence at home - and can be healed of it there as well.

"The balm which each of us needs is that village," Angelou continued. "The village doesn't necessarily have to be more than one person ... it is a nurturing condition, and it is really, at its best, love."

Armed with anecdotal and statistical evidence of the past three decades, conference speakers - including the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Gov. John Engler (R) of Michigan - and more than 750 attendees focused on Angelou's premise that violence starts and stops in the home, as well as other key conclusions: that the problems of families, spouses, domestic unrest, and substance abuse are inseparable; one-size-fits-all programs to fight against abuse and neglect of youth will fail; and top-down solutions by centralized bureaucracies have little chance of success.

A national poll just released by Children's Institute International (CII), a private, nonprofit child-advocacy group that sponsored the event, highlighted the need for fresh approaches to children's needs. Ninety percent of American teens perceive the world as getting more violent, and more than one-third say the threat of violence is everpresent in their lives. Forty-seven percent say schools are getting more violent, and 30 percent report having engaged in at least one physical fight other than with a sibling in the past year.

Conference participants were also spurred by the "family values" rhetoric coming out of the Democratic and Republican conventions.

"It was very encouraging to hear the leadership of both major political parties focus on children during their recent conventions," said Mary Emmons, executive director of CII. "Now it's our task to find practical ways to halt the escalating violence against children, which has exacted a terrible toll on those least able to defend themselves."

Criticized for a dearth of conservative viewpoints, the forum was nonetheless lauded by participants and attendees for focusing so comprehensively on at-risk children.

"Twenty-five years ago, I recall talking at a conference about these issues, and the hall was practically empty," recalled Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island. "The sheer scope and interest evident today is tremendously encouraging."

Warning signs

Experts pointed to a number of warning signs for violence. Barry Nidorf, chief probation officer for Los Angeles County, said that the younger children are when they first tangle with law enforcement, the more prone they are to repeat offenses. He also targeted kids who had problems with peer relationships, were exposed to violent, dysfunctional families, or used drugs.

While disputes rose over some of the proposed solutions to deal with teens' problems, participants did agree on certain needs:

*Greater individual and collective will to act consistently at all levels. An emphasis is needed on individual responsibility in providing role models at home as well as working for community-based solutions - clubs, churches, social groups - rather than relying on federal, state, or local government.

*A collaborative approach by community leaders, neighbors, police, and social workers.

"It makes little sense to provide shelters for battered women that do not include facilities for treating their children," said Carl Bell, head of the Community Mental Health Council Inc., which serves Chicago's poor South Side.

Eloise Anderson, director of the California Department of Social Services, suggested tapping into the financial and human resources of churches as well as "grandmothers ... the bedrock of any community."

*Appropriate targeting of resources. "There will be families we will not be able to save," said Peter Pecora, manager of research for the Casey Family Program and a professor of social work. "Since we have limited resources, we should concentrate them where we have a higher probability of winning."

*A focus on prevention as a cost-effective approach. Studies by the RAND Corporation indicated that jailing third-time felons prevents, on average, 50 crimes to society. But the same money spent on early prevention spares society 200 crimes on average.

"It is more cost-effective to spend our limited funds earlier than later," concluded Areta Crowell, director of Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. She also said that jails are often filled with lesser offenders who should be freed to make room for more violent offenders.

*A cautious approach to family reunification in cases of abuse. "We should no longer feel apologetic about placing kids in foster homes," said Mr. Pecora. There is also renewed attention to adoption across racial lines. Some, including speaker Hillary Rodham Clinton, advocated the increased use of terminating parental rights.

Nicholas Scoppetta, commissioner of New York City's Children's Services Administration, reported a 58 percent increase in adoptions there under a new program that may become a model for the rest of the country.

TV's influence

Participants also honed in on the pervasive influence of the media on children, presenting evidence showing that TV violence could act both as a deterrent and an inducement to copycat behavior. Some said that it was a copout by press and pundits to paint TV producers and programmers as the culprits.

Noting that "crime existed before the invention of the cathode ray tube," Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Children's Network, said, "I wish television were the problem. Then, we could fix it."

Haim Saban told how his animation team for "Power Rangers, a popular children's show often critized for being too violent, emphasized positive messages such as teamwork, "good always wins," and the martial arts as an acceptable outlet for aggression.

But Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said that executives had to take responsibility for negative factors as well. "If producers are willing to admit they can have a good impact, that's acknowledgement of the potential for a bad impact."

Peggy Charren, a children's television consultant and activist, lauded new federal requirements for three hours per week of educational programming for kids.

Mrs. Charren and others also welcomed the invention of the "V chip," which will allow parents to screen violent programs beginning in 1998. But they held that the area of video games presents an ever-burgeoning problem.

"There are some excruciatingly horrific games out there," Charren said. "It's one thing to prevent your own child from owning them ... but then you must worry about the friend down the street who owns one that your child can play."

Many of the specialists said there is considerable consensus on how to better help young people. The issue, they said, is implementation. And they sounded a theme of broad-based responsibility for progress - through such means as involved parents, high expectations by teachers, and committed schools.

"The role of the community is clear. We have to empower the grandmothers, the priests, the people in the community who can make a difference," said Martin Gerry, director of the Center for the Study of Family, Neighborhood and Community Policy at the University of Kansas. "We don't need more services, we need more caring."

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