‘Staggering’ Number of Children Exposed to Violence in Chicago, New Study Says

July 16, 2019by Peter Nickeas
'Staggering' number of children exposed to violence in Chicago; new study says kid population greater in high-homicide areas. (Dreamstime/TNS)

CHICAGO — Over the Fourth of July holiday, Felix Kombwa brought the children he mentors to a festival where a law-enforcement exhibit allowed visitors to sit in a squad car, try on police gear and chat with officers.

But the fireworks, the presence of the officers and the sight of their weapons all scared the children, Kombwa said. They mistook the fireworks for gunshots and thought the guns, though holstered, were “too loud.”

Kombwa works for the Friends of the Children program, mentoring at-risk kids in Chicago’s Austin and North Lawndale areas, which have experienced more homicides in recent years than almost every other community area in the city.

And while it’s long been known that exposure to violence and trauma — even indirectly — has a negative effect on children, especially before the critical under-age-5 stage, a new analysis by the Erikson Institute suggests the problem might be getting worse in Chicago.

The institute found that even while the number of homicides in Chicago and its population dropped over the last few years, the number of children under the age of 5 living in high-homicide areas got bigger.

In fact, about 60% of Chicago’s youngest children lived in community areas where 91% of homicides took place, according to the analysis.

The institute looked at three years of city of Chicago crime data and census demographic reports to estimate the number of children under the age of five 5 living in community areas with a greater-than-median number of homicides. The association was most stark in the Austin neighborhood, which, according to the Erikson study, had the most homicides of any community area in 2018 and the most children under the age of 5 in 2017, the most recent years with available data.

Officials with the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, which focuses on early child development, said their report underscores the need to address not just the roots of community violence but the trauma it causes for children who live in those areas. President and CEO Geoffrey Nagle said the number of children in Chicago exposed to gun violence is “staggering.”

And the trend is heading in the wrong direction, said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, associate vice president of policy for the institute.

“When you peel back the layers, the number of children exposed has increased in spite of losing population,” she said. “If we think math is bad now, we need to think of what it’s going to look like 10 years, 15 years from now if these children live and we don’t do types of interventions necessary to make sure they’re set on course for optimal development in spite of this exposure.”

The percentage of the city’s population of children under the age of 5 who live in areas with above-median number of homicides grew from about 54% during 2016 to 60% in 2018, Pacione-Zayas said.

For Friends of the Children, that intervention is done through long-term mentoring of some of the city’s most vulnerable children. Each mentor spends at least four hours per week with eight children.

“We can’t solve all of our kids’ issues. … Kids who have lots of trauma can act out and that’s when they need the support,” said the program’s executive director, Taal Hasak-Lowy. “If there’s one thing we know helps build resilience, it’s a positive, consistent relationship with an adult.”

Exposure to violence that early in life can have lifelong effects because so much of a child’s development happens in the first five years. Children exposed to chronic violence can become fearful, demonstrate aggression, anxiety, depression, sadness and have difficulty feeling secure, according to the institute.

Children can enter kindergarten having already learned how to settle disputes with violence, Hasak-Lowy and Kombwa said. Friends of the Children aims to teach them other ways of solving disputes.

“There is a sense of violence in solving their problems. They want to fight instead of talk it out,” Kombwa said. “There is a sense that this is what kids do, but sometimes it’s a lot.”

Erikson officials noted that exposure to violence doesn’t necessarily mean eyewitnessing it, as young children are also affected by how their parents or other adults around them respond to violence.

“The adults in their lives know about (homicide), and children experience the world through their adult caretakers,” Nagle said. “If a parent or caretaker is stressed or scared or fearful, even though they’re trying to protect infants or toddlers, it doesn’t mean it’s not impacting what the child gets to do, or their interactions with the adult caregivers.”

Brad Stolbach, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago who’s worked with childhood trauma patients for two decades, noted that the discussion of those effected by homicide often stops with the victims and their immediate family.

“Homicide has a major effect on people, and that one that often does get lost. We’ve become just bean counters and numb to the fact that one person gets killed, there are hundreds of people directly affected by that,” Stolbach said.

The city had 577 homicides in 2018, 672 in 2017 and close to 800 in 2016, according to public city data.

“If it’s a child who gets killed, everyone they go to school with, all their teachers, the family, people have families, every member of their family, extended family, their friend networks are affected,” Stolbach said. “We just, we think about the total number of homicides and, ‘Oh this is so terrible,’ but we don’t actually look at … the value they have to the people who loved them. They’re just a number.”

The increase in the amount of children exposed to homicides comes even though the city’s population is dropping and total number of homicides are edging downward. About 12,000 kids under the age of 5 live in communities that had more than 30 homicides in 2018, according to the study. Those were the Austin, Englewood and North Lawndale communities that year. About 55,000 children under the age of 5 lived in the 20 communities with more than 10 homicides in 2018.

The connection between early childhood adversity and negative health outcomes has been long known. A 1998 study of patients in the Kaiser Permanente health system in San Diego established a link between childhood adversity and poor health behaviors and outcomes, though that study didn’t ask respondents about community violence. Research over the last 20 years, very often citing the 1998 study, has also established a link between negative outcomes and childhood exposure to things like domestic violence, substance abuse, incarceration of parents or the death of a parent.

“What we know is … it impacts everything,” said Colleen Cicchetti, executive director of the Center for Child Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital. “The earlier the exposure, the worse.”

“The science around the impact of trauma of the brain, and impact of science on early childhood, have come together to help us understand that exposure to trauma for kids who are younger can be more devastating,” said Cicchetti, adding the brain is in its most active growth period before age 3, with ages 3 to 5 second.

“So the brain is developing the pathways that will become the foundation of growth and learning in multiple domains of growth going forward,” she said.

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©2019 Chicago Tribune

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