Violence, particularly among youth, is an epidemic in American cities. Youth violence is the leading cause of injury and death for young people aged 10-24 years old, and in many of the country’s largest jurisdictions, homicides and violent crime rose significantly in recent years. Meanwhile, 46 million of the nation’s 76 million children - roughly 60 percent - are exposed each year to violence, crime and abuse according to the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence. The result: the nation pays a high price in lives, money and in lost potential.
Violence poses a serious public health problem, as it affects people in all stages of life and can cause lasting physical, mental, and or emotional health problems. Those who experience repeated exposure to violence can begin to process the experiences as something that is part of normal social life. Consistent exposure to violence at home or in the community can become desensitizing to individuals. Violence makes it hard to feel safe, leading to anxiety, depression, less physical activity in communities, and social isolation.
The Coalition's Work
By partnering with community leaders, law enforcement, schools, hospitals, businesses, libraries, faith-based organizations, and other stakeholders to address complex issues through solutions, local health departments across the nation are committed to stopping violence before it begins. They act as safety net providers and connect family members to programs like parenting support, home visiting, injury and violence prevention, and intimate partner violence screening.
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In Boston, where violence is the leading cause of death among Black and Latino children and nearly 50 percent of high school students report knowing someone who has been shot or killed, the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) has been working hand-in-hand with the police department and other city agencies to address and prevent youth violence. Its Division of Violence Prevention has invested in strategies that prevent violence through skill development for children and youth, training and capacity building among providers, and effective service delivery to individuals who have experienced violence, and resident leadership.
In 2012, BPHC received a grant from the Department of Justice for the Defending Childhood Initiative, to take a trauma-informed approach to violence prevention. The extra resources helped the city develop and test practical, sustainable strategies for implementing trauma-informed practice in six early care and education centers. The trauma-informed practices, policies and environments were deemed a success by evaluators.
Many cities look to law enforcement-driven policies to stem violence, but in recent years more and more cities have taken a public health approach to violence. Boston, Kansas City and Minneapolis are among those showing that when violence—and its root causes—is addressed as a contagious disease, significant progress can be made in reducing and preventing it.
From 2002 to 2011, in the City of Minneapolis, homicide was the leading cause of death among residents ages 15 to 24, accounting for 39 percent of deaths in this age group. Nationally, homicide was the third leading cause of death for this age group during that time.
In 2008, the City of Minneapolis implemented a multi-faceted, multi-sector plan, called Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence.
Kansas City officials began addressing violence as a contagious disease a decade ago. That’s when a city-appointed commission issued a report recommending that violence be treated like a public health issue, not from a traditional policing approach, to reduce the city’s consistently high annual homicide rates.
Homicides, along with aggravated assaults and firearm assaults, were “happening at an epidemic level,” says Tracie McClendon-Cole, Justice Program Manager and director of Aim4Peace program at the Kansas City Health Department. Rather than believing violence is inevitable, Kansas City officials today see violence as an unacceptable learned behavior resulting from preventable and controllable factors, including family instability, poverty, domestic abuse, educational failure and substance abuse.