By Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Imagine that in a given year, more than half of American adults – let’s say three in every five – experience violence, either as victims or as witnesses. What would be your reaction? My guess is that it would fall somewhere on a scale between skepticism (that violence could be so prevalent) and outrage. It would motivate us to action. We would pass laws. We would commission research to determine causes. We would take steps to make our homes and communities safer. In short, we would – I hope – do something.
So how would you respond if you learned that it isn’t adults who are exposed to violence at these rates, but children? The most recent National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence found that, in fact, 58 percent of children in this country have encountered some form of violence, abuse or trauma during the previous year, either directly as victims or indirectly as witnesses. Almost half report suffering more than one type of direct or witnessed victimization. Almost one in six report six or more experiences with violence. And one in 20 have encountered violence 10 or more times. Nearly one in 12 children have seen one family member assault another.
These statistics are deeply troubling and should be unacceptable in a country so rich in opportunity and generous with its blessings as the United States of America. Sadly, exposure to violence is a reality for far too many of our kids, and it affects them physically, emotionally and psychologically. It causes both immediate distress and long-term neurological harm. Exposure to violence reshapes the brain and can cause damage that lasts far into the future.
Thankfully, beyond this dark reality is a brighter prospect. Children are remarkably resilient. The malleability of their brains gives them an advantage in recovery, and they are capable of bouncing back from even the most traumatic experiences as long as they receive proper care and support. And every one of us can play a role in helping them heal. A new national public awareness campaign launched last week will show us how.
The campaign is called Changing Minds, and it is designed to raise awareness, teach skills and inspire public action to address children’s exposure to violence and trauma. Changing Minds is part of the Defending Childhood Initiative, an effort I helped establish during my tenure as Attorney General. Its goal is to broaden the base of knowledge around children and violence and invest in community-based strategies aimed at mitigating its impact.
Changing Minds features digital and print content intended to reach adults who interact with children and youth in grades K–12. It will engage teachers, coaches, counselors, doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers and other frontline professionals and caregivers, guiding them on steps they can take to help kids recover from trauma and go on to lead happy, healthy lives.
The campaign is a collaboration between the United States Department of Justice, the national health and social justice non-profit Futures Without Violence, the Ad Council and the advertising agency Wunderman. The campaign’s website, ChangingMindsNOW.org, includes two original videos that share stories of adults who were exposed to violence as children. It also includes an informational video that illustrates the impact of violence on children’s brain development and a toolkit for schools, communities and other practitioners. Finally, it describes five everyday gestures that adults can use to make a difference.
Violence is far too prominent in our children’s lives, but it does not have to define their futures. We can curb the effects of trauma and restore our young people to wholeness and health, giving them the chance they deserve to pursue their dreams. The responsibility is ours to share.