In the fall of 2016, the Department of Justice launched “Defending Childhood.” This initiative is designed to help educate our world on a child’s brain development and the role violence plays on how the brain grows and matures.
This is not necessarily a new initiative from a conceptual standpoint. From 1995-1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente began doing research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). This study was revolutionary in showing that adverse experiences in childhood could and would impact adult behavior and long-term emotional and physical health. Though there was discussion about the results, at the time, these discussions lacked the wider dialogue needed to make a difference in a child’s life.
However, that is beginning to change. As the country has seen the rise of addiction, mental health issues, crime, relationship problems, etc., the prevailing question has been, “Why?” This question, related to these problems, have begun to generate momentum for looking at a person’s entire life – not just the snapshot of the addict in the hospital or the prisoner in his cell. And (finally!) the battle cry is beginning to sound that ALL adults who are influential in a child’s life, including parents, teachers, doctors, etc., must be made aware of this information so they can best serve the children in their care.
This directly relates to the work being done by Tennessee Voices for Victims. For 12 years, the co-founders have been meeting people in prison who have caused harm to others. Verna and Valerie realized very early in this journey that if those individuals were not sitting in prison, but were living healthy, productive lives, that victimization would be reduced – an incredibly important goal for victim advocates who see the pain survivors of violence must learn to live with. Reduction of crime is an audacious goal, but it is one, in our opinion, that can happen if we successfully answer the question of “How?” Our most effective, and in some ways, direct answer will always be to prevent someone from causing harm to others because in the words of Fredrick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Under every circumstance, strong children will not happen through accident, but for those who are living in violence, a plan of action is required:
- SEE – We have to be willing to see that there are children being exposed to violence, chronically and without relief. And that they, in their childhood, are powerless to help themselves out of the violence.
- LISTEN – We have to be willing to listen to what these children want us to know. We have to be willing to hear their pain and understand how that pain is impacting them. We have to stop shying away from the things we do not want to hear. Without question, most parents love their children; however, loving a child is not enough. For love to be effective, the child must feel it. They have to know in their core that they have value and worth and that message gets lost in the midst of trauma. It is hard for a child to believe they have worth when they worry about falling asleep out of fear that one parent may kill the other during the night or because the whipping they received was so severe they will have trouble sitting down for days or that when they get home from school their parent is passed out on the sofa from their prescribed medications.
- LEARN – We have to be willing to learn what that pain means for these children and what we know, through decades of studying these behaviors, this pain means for other individuals, the community, and society as a whole. We also have to be willing to learn about the issues causing the pain – absentee parents due to addiction, incarceration, or mental health and negative family dynamics such as domestic violence, child abuse, or divorce. This is where websites like the Department of Justice’s https://changingmindsnow.org are critical. This site offers concise information about what these issues do to children, how we can help, and links to additional resources.
- ACT – We have to be willing to decisively act. Reduced crime and safer communities begin with us, the adults, in our society, finding our voice and speaking up and out about the violence the children in our society are experiencing day in and day out. It requires us to have the courage to engage when we know there is a problem. Our children and our society can no longer afford our silence.
Find your voice and help these children find theirs.
Written by: Valerie Craig, Co-Founder, Tennessee Voices for Victims