Cutting a Link in the Chain of Youth Violence

Several recent headlines sent shock waves throughout Memphis and Shelby County, but it was years earlier when the seeds were likely planted in the form of domestic violence that thwarted optimal brain development and put children at risk.  

The Commercial Appeal headlines were stark: A 16-year-old student murdered his teacher inside an East Memphis classroom; a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old robbed and murdered a young woman in North Memphis; and a defendant, who was 17-years-old at the time of the crime, was charged with killing a grocery store owner in a 2008 shooting.

But there are other realities that don’t make the headlines but should: one in four women has been a victim of domestic violence; 49% of Shelby County families where domestic violence occurs had children in the home; domestic violence is more likely to be found in low-income families headed by single mothers, and the domestic violence rate in Memphis is 2,949 per 100,000 people, compared to Nashville’s 2,015. 

We cannot effectively deal with youth violence until we deal decisively with domestic violence, because they are often links on the same chain.  Children growing up in violent families are more likely to engage in youth violence, and the costs in wasted lives and public budgets should move this to the top of our community’s agenda for action.

Our research shows that children exposed to violence in the home are at higher risks for learning problems, poor social skills, and delinquent behavior.  In addition, the single best predictor of children becoming either perpetrators or victims of domestic violence later in life is whether they grow up in a home where there is domestic violence.   

Children exposed to violence need us.  They need trusted adults who they can turn to for help and for services.   Programs to support children exposed to domestic violence are crucial in reducing long-term effects, in educating teachers, ministers, and health care workers to recognize early warning signs, and in providing services to victims of domestic violence. 

At a time when crime is on the decline, the growing number of teenagers in Shelby County Jail charged with major crimes and to be tried as adults underscores the reasons for alarm.  With the number of youths in the Jail moving toward 100 and as young as 13-years-old, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said: “Until we tackle the ‘real’ issues like teenage pregnancies and school dropout rates, we have a big problem and the culture of violence grows.”.

Recently, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton set juvenile handgun violence as one of the two priorities for the new innovation programs funded with $4.8 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, and in addition, Memphis was selected to join the Social Innovation Fund - piloted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s quasi-government Center for Economic Opportunity – that will award cash incentives to at-risk families to encourage positive behaviors.

They are on the right track, because as a community, we have every reason – economic, moral, and public safety – to fight the harm that violence and stress are having on our children and their social and brain development.  At an early age, children’s brains are hard-wired for their future social and emotional functioning, but when they are witnesses and victims to domestic violence, they are placed at profound risk.

The best antidote of course is positive parenting, the kind that makes an infant and toddler feel protected and safe in situations that might otherwise be threatening and stressful.  There is nothing more important that creating a positive environment where children are shielded from stress and traumatic events and where they see their parents as safe havens where they can be nurtured and where their brain development is not negatively affected.  

That’s why we say at The Urban Child Institute that domestic violence is not just a family matter.  Rather, it’s a matter for our entire community to address, because every child has the right to grow up in a safe, nurturing, and stable home environment.