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Journal Issue: The Juvenile Court Volume 6 Number 3 Winter 1996

CHILD INDICATORS: Children as Victims of Violence
Eugene M. Lewit Linda Schuurmann Baker


Violence against children and youths has always occurred, but it has recently been subject to increased public attention. This heightened attention is spawned by high-profile cases of stranger abductions, sexual assault, child abuse, and homicide, and by statistics suggesting an increase in the number of cases of child victimization. For example, newspapers recently reported that almost twice as many individuals under age 20 (5,500) died from gunshots in 1993 as in 1984.1 But deaths, while the most dramatic of victimizations, are only the tip of the iceberg. More frequently, children are abused and neglected by parents, assaulted by siblings, or intimidated by other children. When all of these types of victimization are considered as a whole, children suffer far more victimizations than do members of other age groups.

Children are more prone to victimization than adults not only because they are smaller and weaker than adults but also because they are dependent on adults for their day-to-day care and can seldom choose where and with whom they will live and spend time. Problems such as neglect, family abduction, and psychological maltreatment are strongly related to dependency, and these are much more common for children than for most adults. As children age, they become more independent, so the types of victimizations that they are most at risk for change, and the risks arise more from associations with other youths than from dependency on adults.2

The concept of children as victims brings together the disparate studies of child abuse, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and other forms of violence with studies of such victimizations as assaults by siblings and peer violence. This integration highlights the number of victimizations that children face and may make it easier to identify relationships among different kinds of victimization and to design appropriate interventions.2 Ultimately, however, defining and measuring child victimization as an integrative category of experiences is useful only if doing so leads to a better understanding of the relationship among the types of victimization children suffer and to actions to reduce the harm to children.

This Child Indicators article defines the concept of victimization and reviews data on several victimizations, from homicide and personal crimes of violence to bullying and sibling aggression. Among the key findings are that homicide rates are relatively high for infants and very young children, drop dramatically with increasing age, and then increase rapidly beginning in adolescence reaching a peak rate for 17- to 19-year-olds. Official homicide data may substantially undercount homicides among infants and very young children. After adjustment for this undercounting, homicide rates for the youngest children may be of the same order of magnitude as rates for 17- to 19-year-olds. Personal crimes of violence, including rape, personal robbery, and assault, are much more common than homicide for children. Children 12 and over experience these victimizations at a much higher rate than do adults. Of most concern is the finding that the rate of these victimizations for children age 12 and over, which had been fairly steady prior to 1986, has increased substantially since then as has the more frequently reported homicide rate for this age group. The most common types of child victimization come from their peers and families, including sibling aggression, bullying, and verbal abuse. These are hard to measure accurately and consistently, but available data suggest 3 to 10 times as many children suffer from these common types of victimization as are subjected to personal crimes of violence.