February 15, 2013

As prosecutors, we have long noted with distress how often children are present when violent crimes are committed. Kids don’t need to be the target of the violence to be scarred by it. Ask any adult who witnessed domestic violence while growing up; decades later, he or she will still be able to talk vividly of the event and how it affects them today.

Researchers studying these “invisible victims” have found that an array of emotional and behavioral consequences flow from the exposure. In 2003, the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect published a bulletin outlining negative effects ranging from behavioral and social impairments to cognitive and attitudinal problems. In more precise terms, research has found that children exposed to violence are more aggressive, disobedient, withdrawn and depressed and exhibit lower self-esteem. The experience also can lead to poor school performance and diminished problem-solving skills.

Additionally, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners, spouses and children later in life. In fact, the strongest risk factor for the transmission of violent behavior from one generation to another is for a child to repeatedly witness violence in the home.

One case in point: In April 2011, police responded to a shooting in Landover in which one person was killed and three others were seriously wounded. Five days later, Jeremiah Sweeney was arrested on first-degree murder charges. Prior to his arrest, Sweeney had 25 contacts with the criminal justice system. He was just 24 years old.

In discussions with police and investigators, Sweeney disclosed that from the time he was a small boy, he frequently witnessed violence in and around his home. And while there is no acceptable level of domestic violence, Sweeney made it clear that it wasn’t just a push here or slap there.

Ultimately, Sweeney was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. Many people are understandably reluctant to give much thought to the troubled childhoods of murderers. And, surely, Sweeney himself is responsible for his actions. But we can’t help but ask: If his childhood had been different, would he have committed this horrible crime?

We will never know, of course. But we know that we cannot afford to raise other Jeremiah Sweeneys. We must do all we can to break the cycle of violence.

Twenty-two states and Puerto Rico have already explicitly addressed this issue in some statutory form, and the Maryland General Assembly is considering the Committing a Crime of Violence in the Presence of a Minor Act (HB478 in the House and SB861 in the Senate), which would create a new crime for those who commit a violent crime in the presence of a child.

This bill is a good start. Maryland’s current child abuse statutes require some level of physical or sexual injury for the child to be deemed a victim. But it shouldn’t be necessary for a child to suffer a physical injury before we as a society are willing to protect him or her. With the adoption of this new statute, the courts would be empowered not only to punish the violent offender but also to order the offender to provide restitution to the child witness for any counseling required following the violent act.

When an act of violence is committed in front of a child, there are two victims – the person who suffers the physical consequences and the child who suffers the long-lasting emotional, psychological, and cognitive damage. The bill that would recognize this form of child abuse has been before the Maryland legislature in each of the last four years. The House of Delegates has overwhelmingly supported it, but it has repeatedly stalled in the Senate. That needs to change this session.

The writers are state’s attorneys in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, respectively.