Study of youths and violence is shelved, but research critics are still upset

May 21, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration may have shelved a controversial $400 million study to determine what makes some youngsters turn violent, but with government research on the causes of violence continuing, critics aren't likely to go away.

Without fanfare, the administration recently bowed to pressure from black community groups and members of Congress and dropped the Youth Violence Initiative, which was created last year by Louis W. Sullivan, the secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration.

Dr. Sullivan wanted to approach violence as a public health crisis, similar to the way government once attacked smallpox and now tries to combat AIDS, but critics claimed that the approach would unfairly target inner-city minority residents.

The five-year plan would have tried to determine which children were most likely to commit violent acts and develop special programs to help them that would involve parents, teachers, schools and possible psychiatric treatment.

Controversy over the initiative began in February 1992, when Frederick Goodwin, the government's top psychiatrist, who oversees an agency that funds violence research, said in a speech that the nation's inner cities were like "jungles" where violent and "hyperaggressive monkeys . . . knock each other off."

Critics condemned Dr. Goodwin's remarks and said the initiative was biased because some research focused on minority children. Some claimed that researchers were trying to prove that minorities are biologically prone to commit violence.

Others said treating violence as a health issue obscured the roots of urban upheaval -- drugs, poverty, bad schools and the breakdown of the family.

Dr. Sullivan, who is black, denied the racism charges. Moreover, no government attempts to link violence with race were found by panel Dr. Sullivan convened to look into the charges or by a General Accounting Office review requested by Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.

Some critics disputed those findings, and the lingering controversy apparently spurred the new administration to scrap the program.

"If it has been stopped completely, that's most unfortunate," Dr. Sullivan said in an interview last week.

"We have too many lives of our young men in our minority communities that are being snuffed out and too many who are being injured," said Dr. Sullivan, now president of the Morehouse College School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Government statistics report that 2.2 million people are victims of violence each year, including 20,000 who are murdered.

"We can't ignore the fact that homicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds and that among black youth, it's the leading cause of death," said Jim Mercy, chief of the epidemiology branch in a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The Clinton administration has not yet proposed an alternative approach to one of the gravest crises in America. HHS spokesman Campbell Gardett said Secretary Donna Shalala intends to develop a plan because she believes that youth violence "is not only a significant problem, but a significant health problem."

Mr. Gardett said that Dr. Sullivan urged Ms. Shalala to go forward with his proposal but that she is considering other options, including focusing on preventing violent injury to young children.

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