Violent crimes, mass shootings, school safety concerns, and assaults on women, are constantly in the news. Solutions proposed by federal, state, and local authorities, including President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, almost always focus on increased funding for police including military weaponry and stiffer incarceration. Trump also endorsed “roughing up” people who are arrested. Neither Trump nor Sessions is interested in gun control.
On the other hand, Trump wants steep cuts in federal social service programs that help the poor. Especially hard hit would be Medicaid, which would lose $800 billion during the next ten years if Republican tax and budget cuts are finally approved. Nutritional assistance and welfare programs also face drastic cuts. But these are the type of programs that need increased funding if child abuse, which breeds inter-generational anti-social behavior, is to stop.
CHIP, the United States’ Children’s Health Insurance Program is running out of money. It currently provides health insurance to nine million children from working families. Sixxteen states expect to deplete their CHIP reserve funds by the end of January. Three-quarters of the states will run out of CHIP money by March. The Republican controlled Congress and the Republican President have so far refused to fund CHIP, more intent on passing tax cuts for wealthy Americans. It may well be that the Republican Party is the largest child abuser in the United States.
The New York Times is tracking people released from Connecticut prisons under a program to reduce incarceration and channel inmates back into society. Many end up being incarcerated again. A major reason is that people convicted of crimes often have complex and unresolved problems that date back to their childhoods. According to sociologist Christopher Wildeman, co-director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect, “Childhood trauma is a huge factor within the criminal justice system. It is among the most important things that shapes addictive and criminal behavior in adulthood.”
A number of psychological studies conducted during the last two decades have documented the lasting impact of “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs on human personality and behavior. Traumatic events with long-lasting implications include emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. They can also include witnessing violence against your mother or other family members; living with substance abusers or someone who is mentally ill, suicidal, or criminal, and being the child of someone who is incarcerated. These conditions cause stress that can disrupt early brain development. Serious, chronic stress, can also harm developing nervous and immune systems.
A young boy with his prison visitor’s pass.
The majority of mass shooters in the United States grew up in homes with a mixture of child abuse, domestic violence and drug or alcohol abuse. Though not all children growing up in homes with abuse become mass murderers, there is no question that focusing on trauma-exposed children should be one of this country’s highest priorities.
More recently, economic hardships, especially homelessness, have been identified as common causes of adverse childhood experiences that can lead to adult anti-social and criminal behavior, particularly violence against women. Nationally, over one-fourth of children seventeen and under lives in a family that has experienced economic hardship either somewhat or very often. New York City recently announced that 10% of its student population, over 100,000 children, does not have a permanent residence. Schools may be safe-havens with caring adults, but this is not something they are equipped to address. Homelessness is an educational hardship today with potentially dire circumstances for the future.
Foster care becomes the “safety-net” for children when families collapse under the weight of poverty. But foster care is not a solution. According to recent findings, at age 21, half of young adults who were in the foster care system are unemployed, 20% are homeless, and almost 70% have already been involved in the criminal justice system.
In the journal The Medical News, Dr. George Frank Lydston of Chicago, Illinois argued criminality could best be treated as a preventive disease by addressing the social causes that lead to juveniles becoming adult criminals. “Like all other diseases the disease of crime is one which is more rationally treated by prevention than by curative methods. Will not the law-maker join hands with the medical practitioner and endeavor, even at the sacrifice of his own interests, to prevent the diseases he treats?” Lydston was probably ahead of his time. He wrote the article in 1896. Unfortunately, it appears he is still ahead of his time today.
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