Here's a horrendous fact: So far, homicides in this...


October 13, 1990|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Evening Sun Staff

Here's a horrendous fact: So far, homicides in this country are occurring at a rate that will surpass 1989's total by 2,000 deaths. That would break a decade-old record and make this the "bloodiest year in American history," according to Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Consider also that these killings are often witnessed by other people, including children. What does such a traumatic experience do to young hearts and minds?

Plenty, according to Carl C. Bell and Esther J. Jenkins, a psychiatrist and psychologist in Chicago who have conducted research on children who witness violence.

Bell and Jenkins cite evidence that children's exposure to violent killings is considerable, especially for those who grow up in inner cities. One study, an examination of half of the 1985 homicide cases in Detroit, found that a small sample of those killings -- 17 percent -- were witnessed by 136 people who were 18 or younger. In one-fourth of those cases, the victim was a family member.

Obviously, such killings produce more than one kind of victim. Families suffer, and so do all bystanders who are confronted with a violent reminder of the fragility of life and the reality of death. Unfortunately, many of these children witness repeated episodes of violence. As traumatic as such random violence is for adults, think for a moment about its effect on children.

From war veterans we have learned about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the disruptive effects violence can have on the lives of witnesses and participants. Psychologists say that children are susceptible to those same symptoms.

They may re-enact the event in their play or in dreams. They may feel emotionally numb, behaving in a subdued or withdrawn manner. They may lose interest in their usual activities. They may startle easily or have trouble sleeping.

These children may show a drop in self-esteem and a decline in school performance. They are also likely to be plagued by fear that they will encounter more violence and they may even be bothered by guilt about their behavior during the incident. They may become pessimistic about the future and have trouble developing close relationships. After all, they've seen how easily and randomly these bonds can be broken.

For those children who witness the violent death of a family member, trauma complicates their grief. Normally, a child (or anyone, for that matter) who loses a loved one can find comfort in reminiscing about that person. The process of recalling fond memories helps the long-term process of grieving and coming to terms with a death.

But when that death was violent, these normal activities of grief can trigger instead the nightmare of reliving the event, and perhaps even rage against the perpetrator or a desire to revenge the death.

Those who work with inner-city children worry about the effects of chronic exposure to violence. Human beings are adaptable, and they can become accustomed to many kinds of behavior. However, as Bell and Jenkins point out, the evidence suggests that children don't really adjust to repeated violence; rather, they experience an emotional overload that can lead to major personality changes and certainly not good changes.

The blight of repeated violence in children's lives has a ripple effect, first on the surrounding community but eventually on the wider society. These children bear the terrible burden of growing up robbed of reasons to care about themselves, about their communities, their country or their world.

Why invest in life emotionally or any other way when it seems to be so cheap? That's a question too many children now rightfully ask. It's also a question our society must take seriously if it is to continue to thrive.

*Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278

* *Universal Press Syndicate

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