Abstract and Keywords
Community violence represents a widespread concern receiving increasing attention by social workers. This article considers the problem of community violence and our present understanding of its extent and consequences. Evidence is growing that identifies risk and protective factors linked with community violence exposure, particularly those of a demographic nature. At present early evidence points to potentially helpful ameliorative and preventive strategies for social workers to consider at the micro and macro levels.
Community violence has gained growing attention as a problem of concern within the social work profession, particularly since the beginning of the 1990s, when studies began documenting a problem of widespread proportions, affecting many whom social workers often encounter, with major physical, mental health, psychosocial, and broader societal consequences. The notion of “community violence” remains a vague concept, however, and is perhaps most appropriately conceived of as an omnibus term, encompassing a variety of types and manifestations of violence, across a variety of community settings.
At its most basic, the term community violence denotes acts of interpersonal violence that occur in community settings, including neighborhoods, streets, schools, shops, playgrounds, or other community locales. These acts may include such incidents as gang violence, rapes, shootings, knifings, beatings, or muggings. Some scholars also include other forms of violence under the rubric of community violence, such as social unrest or riots taking place in community settings, while still other scholars have included violence occurring in the home or perpetrated among family members as manifestations of community violence (Guterman, Cameron, & Staller, 2000). Although the location and persons involved in the violence (as victims, perpetrators, and potentially as witnesses) often shape whether an act of violence is appropriately labeled as community violence, no clear consensus yet exists as to what boundaries demarcate community violence from other forms of violence, such as domestic violence or political violence. It is clearly the case that one form of violence may overlap with or even “spill over” into community violence and vice versa, as in the case of sexual assault between partners, or interclan or interethnic violence, and community violence incidents may be identified by different labels, such as “crime,” “gang violence,” or “school violence.” A lack of clear and precise demarcation of the term makes it difficult to accurately track the magnitude of the problem, monitor changing trends over time, or identify risk and protective factors. The presently diffuse definition of the term also risks its politicization, or worse, lends itself to be used in a biased or pejorative way, such as to purvey racist, classist, or ageist stereotypes about “violent communities” or demographically defined groups. Further work is therefore necessary to more precisely define what constitutes community violence, and how it differs from other manifestations of violence.
Prevalence of Community Violence Exposure
Mindful of a rather ill-defined demarcation of community violence, the extent of the problem is, nonetheless, by all measures one of widespread proportions in the United States, and some have even labeled the problem, especially for children and adolescents, a “public health epidemic.” Most indications are that the risk of severe victimization outside of the home is at least twice as great for children and youth as it is for adults, and the risk of lower level victimization is at least three times as high for children and youth as it is for adults. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported homicide as the fourth leading cause of death among children under 12 years (behind unintentional injury, cancer, and congenital anomalies), and the third leading cause of death for children aged 12–17 years (behind unintentional injuries and suicide), with the juvenile homicide rate in the United States the highest in the industrialized world. It is worth noting that almost two-thirds of juvenile homicide victims were killed by firearms.
Nationally representative self-report surveys focused on youths have variously reported that upward of 50% of American children and adolescents experience some significant acts of physical assault each year, that ∼10% or greater are threatened each year with a potentially lethal weapon (such as a knife or a gun), and that about 10% report being sexually assaulted each year (see Finkelhor, Hamby, Ormrod, & Turner, 2004) Most studies of community violence have been focused on urban inner city children and youths, and these have reported that the large majority of the children and youths residing in inner cities in the United States have been exposed to at least one act of community violence either as witnesses or as direct victims, with one study, for example, reporting that 67% of young respondents had witnessed a shooting, 50% had witnessed a stabbing, and 25% had been personal victims of some form of severe violence (Jenkins & Bell, 1997). Studies have reported wide variations in exposure rates, across urban settings, differing study methods, time frames, samplings strategies, and measurement instruments Although it is difficult to ascertain whether community violence exposure rates have declined from the peak years in United States in the early 1990s, it is likely that there has been some diminishment from the peak crime years during this period. It is clear that the majority of violence exposure does not get reported to official sources, particularly lower-level violence, although reports of homicide have declined significantly from their peak in 1993.
Risk and Protective Factors for Community Violence Exposure
Currently, understanding of risk and protective factors for exposure to community violence is primarily limited to demographic indicators. Of those, the primary factors identified include the socioeconomic status of the family and community of residence, race and ethnic affiliation, gender, and age.
In general, studies indicate that risk for exposure to community violence is associated with community settings characterized by high concentrations of poverty, as indicated by low incomes, poor housing conditions, and high rates of residential instability, although this is a broad trend and by no means a one-to-one predictor of violence exposure risk. Several studies indicate that although youths living in urban inner city environments face the highest exposure rates when compared with those in other community settings, those living in middle-class suburban and rural settings also face significant risk for violence exposure outside the home, with, for example, findings indicating that about one-fourth of the youth living in rural areas not defined as poor have been exposed to gun violence at least once.
Conditions in poor urban neighborhoods are thought to intensify levels of personal and social stress, and are also viewed as more prone to illicit behaviors such as drug trafficking and gang activities from which violent behavior may often originate. However, concentrated poverty and community disorganization are not the only community-level factors that appear to be linked with heightened risk for violence exposure. Important work has recently identified “collective efficacy” as a primary explanatory factor in predicting the likelihood of neighborhood crime and violence. Collective efficacy of a neighborhood is characterized by the degree to which its residents perceive positive social cohesion among one another, and the degree to which they exercise informal social control to maintain positive social norms (Sampson, Raudenbusch, & Earls, 1997).
Race and Ethnicity
Studies on community violence have found that although all ethnic groups in the United States are exposed to community violence, the rates of exposure among ethnic minorities are disproportionate. Comparative data on Whites, African Americans, Latinos, and persons from other ethnic and racial groups have revealed that African Americans, and to a lesser extent Latinos, experience higher levels of exposure to violent crime. Even more so, American Indians have been reported to experience violence exposure at rates twice as high as those found among African Americans, over two and a half times higher than those among Whites, and four and a half times higher than those among Asians (Rennison & Rand, 2003). It has been argued that high levels of exposure to violence among some youth of color may be a function of the socioeconomic status of their families and localities of residence, as ethnic minorities are overrepresented in poor urban areas with high rates of crime and violence.
Several studies have shown that male children and adolescents are overall more likely than females to experience and witness violent incidents in the community, across socioeconomic gradients and ethnic groups (see Selner-O'Hagan, Kindlon, Buka, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1998). Some evidence suggests that while males are at greater risk of personally experiencing and witnessing physical violence, females are at greater risk of exposure to sexual assaults, though the findings on gender are not uniform. Some evidence suggests that gender differences in community violence exposure may vary according to age. For example, some studies have reported no gender differences in preschool children's exposure to community violence, and one study found that girls in elementary school reported greater exposure to community violence than did boys of the same age, although those differences disappeared in a follow-up study conducted two years later (Attar, Guerra, & Tolan, 1994).
Most studies have revealed an important relationship between age and rates of exposure to community violence, although there is some inconsistency in the findings. Data from official homicide reports indicate an inverted-U relationship between age and victim, with risk for violent death from a nonfamily perpetrator remaining low until adolescence, then rising dramatically, and peaking at ∼20 years, and then gradually declining through the rest of the life span (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). Several self-report studies on nonfatal violence exposure have corroborated this pattern; however, the findings on this relationship are not uniform, and may, in part, depend upon the subgroups studied. For example, several studies indicate quite high rates of community violence among very young children from urban settings (see Shahinfar, Fox, & Leavitt, 2000). Although further information is necessary to understand the interaction between age and other risk factors for community violence exposure, it remains clear that risk for community violence exposure is present at all ages.
In regard to individual-level psychosocial or behavioral factors that may heighten or lower risk to community violence exposure, little empirical evidence to date sheds light on the factors that may be most salient. Some preliminary evidence has indicated that the use of illicit psychoactive substances is associated with greater community violence exposure Not surprisingly, adolescents with aggressive behavior problems are at a higher risk for violence exposure, particularly so for males who also show depressive symptoms. In addition, some evidence suggests that negative and harsh parenting might place children at a higher risk of community violence exposure by shaping the children's own aggressive behavior, and by affecting their socializing patterns with more delinquent peers. Beyond this, further research is necessary to identify whether and which individual- and family-level factors may place individuals at a greater risk of exposure to community violence.
Consequences of Exposure to Community Violence
From a medical standpoint, exposure to community violence is a devastating problem, and murder is one of the leading causes of death in children and adolescents. Of particular concern to social workers is the wide array of psychosocial and behavioral consequences that have been identified with community violence exposure. Violence exposure has been shown to interfere with many of the primary developmental tasks in childhood and early adulthood (the period of greatest exposure risk), such as the development of trust, emotional regulation, and the ability to form and establish social relationships. Even more so, community violence exposure has been linked with significant mental health sequelae, including most notably symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder commonly manifested after exposure to a traumatic event. Also frequently identified in prior research are clear links between community violence exposure and increased aggression, delinquency, and weapons-carrying. Importantly, longitudinal studies have been able to document that increases in aggression follow violence exposure, providing ominous hard evidence that exposure to community violence may beget further violence perpetration from victims, suggesting a rippling “contagion” effect of community violence (see Gorman-Smith & Tolan, 1998).
Several studies have also documented community violence exposure linked with heightened anxiety and depression, as well as with somatic complaints that may be related to anxiety, such as sleep disturbances, headaches, stomachaches, and increased symptoms of asthma. Still further studies have linked community violence exposure with cognitive and academic delays, with attitudes of hopelessness and “futurelessness” (the belief that one has no real future). Further, evidence is accumulating that exposure to community violence is linked with greater exhibition of risky behaviors, including sexual risk taking, reckless driving, and greater use of illicit psychoactive substances (Guterman & Cameron, 1997). Currently, the knowledge base linking such problems with community violence exposure rests almost exclusively on studies drawing from nonclinically referred samples of children and adolescents, and some evidence suggests that such sequelae may manifest differentially for those seen in clinical settings. This points out a need for social workers and other allied mental health professionals to be mindful to conduct careful and specialized assessments with those who may face some risk of exposure to community violence.
Interventions to Community Violence
Perhaps because of the recent attention given to community violence and its effects on mental health and psychosocial functioning, little has yet been identified in the way of effective social work responses specifically targeted to community violence per se. In fact, evidence suggests that clinical social workers, as well as allied mental health professionals have often overlooked experiences of community violence exposure in their clinical work with clients, hampering effective service responses (Guterman, Hahm, & Cameron, 2002). However, an incipient knowledge base is emerging that helps guide social workers to assess for and address the identified consequences of community violence exposure, as well as to consider risk and protective factors related to future violence exposure. For example, a nascent empirical base is identifying factors that appear to help mitigate the mental health and psychosocial consequences of community violence exposure after it occurs. Most notably, perceived support from friends and family appears to buffer the impact of community violence exposure on adolescents, and there is limited evidence that prosocial cognitions may buffer the impact of community violence exposure, particularly for girls. Such findings, while at the descriptive stage, can provide important clues for social workers aiming to mitigate the psychosocial consequences of violence exposure among their clients.
At the micro level with individuals, families, and groups, social workers can also turn to well-established and empirically supported intervention strategies designed to target common sequelae resulting from community violence exposure. These include, for example, an array of intervention strategies now available and empirically supported to assist clients with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (most notably cognitive-behavioral interventions), as well as well-developed intervention strategies aimed at reducing externalizing and further aggressive behaviors (for example, via parent training, or behavioral modification strategies). Social workers can also draw from anxiety management strategies for clients exhibiting anxiety symptoms in the wake of community violence exposure. Finally, to help mitigate its effects and to reduce the risk of further exposure, social workers can draw from that subset of descriptive research that identifies factors that mediate the impact of community violence exposure on clients, and that predict the likelihood of exposure in the first place. For example, research suggests the likely benefits of improving parental support and monitoring for children and adolescents who may be at risk of violence exposure and its consequences. Given risk factor research identifying harsh parenting, children's own aggression, and choice of delinquent peers as associated with violence exposure risk, social workers can also turn to preventive parent–child strategies, as well as social skills interventions to interrupt early patterns that may later lead to greater risk for violence perpetration and exposure (see Limbos et al., 2007).
At the macro level, there are many community-oriented strategies that aim to address the underlying causes of community violence and crime. These include addressing neighborhood poverty and the presence of illicit drugs in neighborhoods, building neighborhood-level collective efficacy and organization, and making available habitable and safe housing, all appearing as the most promising strategies to prevent both community violence and its pernicious consequences. There are also a range of community-building programs such as community gardens, street murals, creating or strengthening block and neighborhood associations, supporting community policing strategies, all of which have merit. Perhaps most directly targeting the problem of community violence are anti-gang initiatives and violence prevention community-based interventions such as “Ceasefire” in Chicago that mobilize residents to alter local norms away from violence as inevitable and acceptable, and that employ streetworkers to resolve brewing conflicts before they erupt in violent exchanges. Preliminary evidence of such strategies is highly positive and suggests that community-based preventive strategies hold great promise to reduce community violence and its devastating consequences (see Diehl, 2005; Fritsch, Caeti, & Taylor, 1999).
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