Taking Care of Kids Who Witness Death

By Diane Dimond

June 16, 2018 6 min read

Normally, small research studies don't interest me much because they usually don't include a large cross section of participants. I mean, how can you reach a generalized conclusion if you have only questioned or studied 20 or 30 people, right?

But a newly reported effort from the Boston Reentry Survey caught my attention. During a project that spanned more than a year, departing prison inmates were asked all sorts of questions. The one that caught my attention focused on the inmates' childhood: "Did you ever see someone get killed during that time?"

A stunning 42 percent of the 122 men and women participants said yes. Some had seen deadly violence more than once. And a majority received no trauma or mental health counseling after the horrifying event.

Think about the lasting effect of a child witnessing a death — a murder, suicide or fatal accident. The idea of children being exposed to such a traumatic event and then having to mentally sort it all out alone is chilling.

It begs the question: Did the inmates' childhood trauma and lack of any meaningful therapy to help them deal with it somehow put them on a path to prison?

Numerous studies over the years concluded that children's exposure to violence can have a profound and lasting effect. It can impact their physical and mental health, and their future accomplishments in school and at work. What is unique about the Boston Reentry Survey is that it is one of the first to focus specifically on the link between childhood exposure to violent death and possible future incarceration. The conclusion seems to be that yes, there is a connection.

Prisoners often are part of a minority group, had a troubled childhood and likely lived at or below the poverty level. Along with the 42 percent of convicts in the Boston study who said they had witnessed a death, half also said they had been seriously physically abused by a parent. A third said they had witnessed domestic abuse at home.

Take the case of Peter. He told researchers that when he was 12, he saw a man stabbed to death in a brawl outside a bar. Peter was later imprisoned after a series of stabbing assaults. Once behind bars, the violence continued. Like many of the departing inmates, Peter told researchers he had witnessed multiple violent assaults while incarcerated, both convict-on-convict and between convict and prison guards.

As one respondent put it, the violence he regularly witnessed as a child seemed "normal." That he would continue the pattern later in life was no surprise.

An inmate named Patrick was extensively interviewed along with his family members. Beginning at age 5, Patrick was regularly beaten by his heroin-addicted mother's boyfriends. His aunt told researchers the boy was raised by grandparents. "It was just a crazy house, between my brothers coming in either beat up or having some horrible car accident ... or someone falling asleep with a cigarette and a mattress going up on fire," she said. "It was a very traumatic house to live in." Patrick saw his uncle stab a man and helped him steal a car.

There were fewer women convicts in the study, but almost every one of them reported having been a victim of sexual violence as a child.

One of the saddest parts of this study was how these struggling children were shunted aside. Eighty-one percent had been suspended or expelled from school after acting out, some as early as elementary school. Few were offered support services. There was no counseling for family dysfunction or problems with behavior, drugs or learning. Eventually, 60 percent dropped out before high school graduation.

The parents of these uncared-for children should have done better by them, but they didn't. So, what is society's responsibility to these kids?

Harvard professor Bruce Western, author of "Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison" and one of the researchers of the Boston study, believes the criminal justice system is lopsided and consistently favors affluent and middle-class kids. After using drugs, destroying property and assaulting others, they go before a judge and are often given an alternative to prison. "(T)he justice system ... looks to the potential of that middle-class kind and shows mercy and leniency," Western said.

He believes if judges were to take a similar tact with poor kids and look to their potential, that's "a way out of the problem of mass incarceration."

It's clear those who are victimized in childhood often become criminals as adults. It just makes common sense to fund schools so that instead of expelling problem children, we help rescue them with tutoring, life-choice counseling and maybe even mental health referrals. Why don't we focus on that? What are we waiting for?

I wonder when it will seep into our societal psyche that when we help put children on the right path, it helps all of us. And the result is sure to reduce our prison population.

To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. Her latest book, "Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box," is available on Amazon.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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