Bryan Samuels is the commissioner of the Administration of Children, Youth, and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services. He wrote the column below for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s month-long feature on the work of the Defending Childhood Task Force.
Late last year, the murder of 20 first graders inside a classroom in a quiet Connecticut suburb focused the country’s attention on the pervasiveness of violence and its impact on young people. Certain aspects of the tragedy captured our attention: the helplessness of 6-year-olds, the perceived safety of a school, and the suddenness of the massacre. As a country, we have agreed: This type of violence must be prevented, and those affected by it need support to heal and recover.
But we recognize that much more must be done to protect children from violence and help them cope when it occurs. Appropriately, our national dialogue has expanded to acknowledge the fact that far too many children grow up in homes and communities marked by ongoing violence. Child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, and community violence have a dramatic impact on the well-being of our nation’s children and youth. We must work to prevent children’s exposure to violence; when it occurs we must carefully attend to its effects and intervene to mitigate them, building in their place the skills and capacities necessary for positive, healthy functioning.
When a child is exposed to violence, either as a victim or a witness, it shapes his/her view of the world. In cases of maltreatment, the disruption of the parent-child attachment can seriously affect the development of critical skills, including the ability to regulate emotions, the capacity for empathy, and the confidence to explore new environments, among others.
These skills are particularly important because they all contribute to a young person’s ability to form and sustain relationships throughout life. Research has demonstrated that victims of child maltreatment who have positive relationships with peers, adults, and romantic partners are less likely to develop mental health problems, engage in criminal behavior, and suffer poor health outcomes as adults.
Given the clear link between relationships and resilience for victims of violence, it is essential that our public systems—including child welfare, mental health, and juvenile justice—focus on repairing relationships and helping young people develop the skills for creating and maintaining attachments. Fortunately, there is a growing array of evidence-based and evidence-informed interventions that do just that. Interventions like Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC) help caregivers, including foster caregivers, cultivate close, caring attachments with young children. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) engages parents and children in individual and joint sessions focused on strengthening their relationships, building parenting skills, and supporting children’s social skill development. These and other interventions have a strong foundation in rigorous research and evaluation; when delivered with fidelity, they yield positive results for children and their families.
It is important to note that caregivers, including birth parents, foster parents, relative caregivers, and adoptive parents, are essential participants in many of these interventions. As the primary attachment figures in the lives of children and youth, caregivers have a critical role to play in helping young people learn and practice the skills necessary to engage in positive, protective relationships.
At the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, we are working every day to prevent children’s exposure to violence and increase access to interventions that promote healing and recovery when violence does occur. Each of the populations we serve has been uniquely affected by violence. In child welfare systems, domestic violence shelters, and runaway and homeless youth programs, we are supporting efforts to better screen for trauma symptoms, assess mental health needs, and deliver evidence-based and evidence-informed interventions that support children’s social and emotional well-being.
During every moment of their young lives, children and youth are formulating their answer to the “first and most basic question” of whether or not their world is a friendly place. The answer influences how they move through their lives and who they become. Certainly we should make every effort to prevent exposure to violence. But when it occurs, our response can help young people believe that, in spite of what they have experienced, their world can be safe, supportive, and full of opportunities for fulfillment.
To watch videos of the Defending Childhood Task Force hearings, visit NCCD’s task force page. For more information on the Defending Childhood Task Force and Initiative, visit the Department of Justice’s Task Force website.