Children and Polyvictimization: Proactive is Better than Reactive!


When one thinks of children’s exposure to violence and abuse in the home, that is usually as far as our imagery extends. Nothing else. Either it’s a home where instances of abuse, violence or criminal behaviors occur or IT occurs elsewhere. One instance;one type.  Most likely, one accompanies another as co-occurring traumatic experiences for children and family members. Polyvictimization is a much neglected component of child victimization trauma.

Children in the U.S. suffer higher rates of victimization and crime than adults. Actually, 1 in 4 students will experience some type of trauma or victimization before the age of 16, and is directly responsible for a variety of physical and mental health related consequences affecting them well into adulthood.

Efforts to help traumatized and victimized children tend to be fragmented, as they tend to focus on one type of trauma. For example, intervention and prevention programs will focus on bullying, dating violence, sexual abuse, alone. While these are important areas of focus for such programming, it would be most effective to incorporate a holistic and integrated approach to existing and proposed services. By focusing on polyvictimization, teachers, counselors, family and child advocates can provide the best interventions and prevention services.

Children are resilient and many can overcome negative effects of violence and trauma. However, some who are exposed to these events will suffer from traumatic stress long after the trauma has ended. Emotional symptoms such as, depression, anxiety, behavior problems, learning difficulties and attention problems can arise. Physical symptoms including sleep and eating disorders, and even nightmares are often frequent occurrences.

The primary goal of schools is to educate students, and this makes them the most natural places to implement prevention programming strategies,particularly since trauma directly affects the academic achievement of children. Trauma is the greatest cause of underachievement in schools with kids suffering from decreased reading ability, lower GPAs, and higher absences, suspension and dropout rates. Unfortunately, though, not all schools are implementing comprehensive prevention programs-for students AND families/adult caregivers.

It is important to understand that bullying, cyberbullying, sexual assault and abuse, and other types of victimization experienced by kids do not occur in isolation. Trauma-sensitive programming in education usually follows a highly publicized tragic event in a community, as a reaction to a single type of victimization. Focus in school settings should encompass a broad spectrum of victimization and traumatic stress-producing situations and events. Embedded into the guidance program, family engagement services and the general curriculum, as well. Proactive is better than reactive! School staff must become more trauma-sensitive, trauma-focused, and also know what signs to look for, such as:

Young Children (5 and younger)

Young children’s reactions are strongly influenced by their caregivers’ reactions. Children in this age range who are exposed to violence may:
■ Be irritable, fussy or have difficulty calming down
■ Become easily startled
■ Resort to behaviors common to when they were younger (for example, thumb sucking, bed wetting, or fear of the dark)
■ Have frequent tantrums
■ Cling to caregivers
■ Experience changes in level of activity
■ Repeat events over and over in play or conversation

Elementary School-Age Children (6–12 years)

Elementary and middle school children exposed to violence may show problems at school and at home. They may
■ Have difficulty paying attention
■ Become quiet, upset, and withdrawn
■ Be tearful or sad and talk about scary feelings and ideas
■ Fight with peers or adults
■ Show changes in school performance
■ Want to be left alone
■ Eat more or less than usual
■ Get into trouble at home or at school

Teenagers (13–18 years)
Older children may exhibit the most behavioral changes as a result of exposure to violence. Depending on their circumstances, teenagers may:
■ Talk about the event constantly or deny that it happened
■ Refuse to follow rules or talk back with greater frequency
■ Complain of being tired all the time
■ Engage in risky behaviors
■ Sleep more or less than usual
■ Demonstrate increase in aggressive behavior
■ Want to be left alone, not want to spend time with friends
■ Experience frequent nightmares
■ Use drugs or alcohol, run away from home, or get into trouble with the law

What can we do?
Understanding the prevalence and impact of polyvictimization can help families, advocates and practitioners identify the most seriously victimized children and protect them from additional harm. It will also help target intervention and prevention to the full range of trauma-causing events that children are at risk of or have experienced to provide needed services and supports.

Expand Assessment Beyond the ‘Presenting’ Problem
Agencies working with vulnerable children need to ensure that they are not responding only to the “presenting” issue (i.e., sexual abuse) because it is likely that they are also experiencing other types of victimization concurrently (i.e., bullying and physical assaults).
It is critical to recognize the need for more comprehensive assessment to identify them as potential victims of violence and to ensure that their treatment accounts for this possibility.

Emphasize Prevention and Early Intervention

We know that not all children who are exposed to violence require mental health intervention. However, because of their higher vulnerability for problems, children who’ve been exposed to multiple types of trauma, must be formally assessed and referred for intervention when needed. In fact, children and their families should be referred to preventive services, as they may also address individual, relationship and community factors that predict and prevent future exposure.

Provide Comprehensive Services

Treatment and related supports should address the underlying factors for victimization.Reducing stigma and reminders need be strategized and applied to the full range of exposures through developmentally appropriate programming and culturally responsive support services.

Develop Community-Based Partnerships

Services for children exposed to multiple types of victimization and violence must recognize that these kids not only suffer from trauma, but are often stuck in families or environments that may increase the likelihood of repeated victimization. It is therefore best to involve the family, school and work together with other community based providers[e.g. agencies, CBOs, schools, churches…] to assess the environmental conditions Develop strategies to address them, like teaching parenting skills, anger management, self and child advocacy, mental and behavioral health awareness, disseminate information, etc…. Not limited to school or clinical settings, but offer services close to home and in the community. Provide both ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ spaces for children and their families.

Protecting children from abuse and neglect alone is a much too narrow approach to address the ‘whole’ child, because no matter the environmental setting, all children are whole-right then and right there. We mustn’t forget that children are still developing,and their are greatly impacted and influenced by every environment, which includes schools, home, out on the playground. And, whatever happens in one will influence the other.

Break the Cycle
Working with families, the vulnerable and ‘at-risk’ or working with the most vulnerable children and youth, makes it a professional responsibility to help build the protective factors and enhance the capacity of parents, caregivers, teachers, and any adult who may be in a position to intervene and stop the progression toward polyvictimization. Increase awareness of disrupted families, without regard to structure, and be mindful of the communities in which incidents of violence are prevalent. It is under these environmental conditions that we may see early indicators and warning signs of present or future polyvictimization. Proactive is better than reactive!

For more information and resources, please contact the Safe Start Center, a National Resource Center for Children’s Exposure to Violence:

How to Put Cultural Competence into Practice

Starting in the late 1980s, the mental health profession responded to the issue of disparity, as does education and other professions and service providers today, , with a new approach to care called cultural competence. Initially defined as a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency or among professionals to enable people to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.

Intended to do the following, cultural competence should:

  • Improve access to care
  • Build trust and
  • Promote engagement and retention in care.

Defined in general terms, cultural competence is:

” …the delivery of services, responsive to the cultural concerns of racial and ethnic minority groups, including their language, history, traditions, beliefs and values.”( U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001)

Mainly, cultural competence refers to guiding principles developed to meet the needs of diverse communities, including ethnic and racial minorities. While, in theort, the need and purpose for cultural competence or proficiency is valid and is critical for equitable The Surgeon General says that evidence-based practices are intended for every consumer regardless of his or her culture. Practices need to be adjusted, however, to make them accessible and effective for cultural groups that differ in language or behavior and traditions. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, which means that we must ‘tweak’ our evidence-based practices according to the target audience and the mutually-identified goals. This is where cultural competence comes in.

To deliver culturally competent and evidence-based services, we tailor our interventions to the unique communities we serve-either the practice itself or the context in which the practice is delivered. Since the goal of all programs is to be culturally competent, here are a few strategic steps to take which illustrate that responsiveness.

  • Understand the racial, ethnic, and cultural demographics of the populations served
  • Become more familiar with one or two of the groups you most commonly encounter
  • Create a cultural competence advisory committee consisting of consumers, family and community-based organizations
  • Translate your forms and brochures
  • Offer to match a practitioner with a consumer/family of similar background
  • Use bilingual staff when needed
  • Ask your consumers/families about their cultural background and identities
  • Incorporate cultural awareness into assessments, interventions
  • Tap into natural networks of support, such as extended family and community groups that represent the family’s culture
  • Reach out to religious and spiritual organizations to encourage referrals and sources of support
  • Train staff in culturally responsiveness in communication skills
  • Understand that some behaviors that one culture deems psychopathology, maladaptive or disrespectful are perfectly acceptable in another culture

The word competence implies a set of criteria to evaluate a program, but in this context, it means to tailor care, practices, strategies to different cultures, and places THAT responsibility on the system itself, not the consumer. Therefore every provider or program/school/agency administrator bears the responsibility to make programs accessible, appropriate, appealing and effective for diverse communities served.

Many do it naturally, and deliver culturally competent, evidence based and individually tailored services. Within these environments, there is certain to be what we tend to label, ‘quality’ care, education and services accessed and provided to consumers-children, teens, adults and families. In these cross-systems-strengthened communities, the entire population will tend to be healthier, academic achievement and school performance will likely be less problematic, family and community engagement will likewise rest at higher levels.  Services delivered in the absence of intentionally responsive evidence based practices, procedures, strategies and interventions do not support families, children or their respective community. Why?

When services are delivered within the framework of evidence-based practices which reflect cultural responsiveness and competence, the consumers served by that provider will increase empowerment and enhance life quality. Since cultural competent service delivery is a growing concept, there is no definitive formula or standard set of practices to follow. However, with self-awareness preceding cultural awareness and organizational mission and vision of success accompanying evidence-based practices, respect and appreciation for diversity should optimize service delivery. Ultimately, professionals will    equip all consumers with tools, skills and provide the appropriate supports that will lead to stronger, healthier, and more empowered collective.

Last thought: How will you know which practices apply to different ethnic, racial or cultural groups? The answer is that we won’t know if we don’t try, and we keep trying, tweaking, modifying strategies and adapting interventions- until successful goal attainment.

Is “Implicit Bias” Just Another Excuse?


anthemIs ‘implicit bias’  REALLY present ‘ONLY’at a subconscious level or is it a cop-out…another excuse? Here is one opinion, baked by experience and little scientific research, but just as plausible as the critical examination of theoretical frameworks.  We speak of everyday biases, the not -so obvious or covert displays of prejudice, and we lend excuses to them by offering an escape to those who demonstrate an alignment with the politically incorrect ‘caricature’-ish attitudes regarding individuals who represent racial, ethnic, religious….diversity.

Implicit bias demonstrates stereotypic thinking, “immaculate perceptions”, derived from the lack of empathic awareness, cultural sensitivity, the absence of knowledge which correlates with a certain level of open-mindedness, critical reasoning and logical thought. It may feel comfortable, normal, regular, and even realistic to see others through these narrow, ethnocentric cultural lenses. It may feel right and evidence-based.

In reality, it can derive from fear and self-loathing; an insecurity or historical guilt which manifests as legitimate reasons to devalue  disrespect and deny access to resources, opportunities and rights to thrive in an ‘equal’ society. Thus, it makes it excusable, less embarrassing, and less racist to minimize its impact on the way we see the world or the way we see ourselves in relation to others in the world. It just feeds the ego, and we accept that.

It is evidence that we are afraid to ‘let the chips fall where they may”. That feels too random, the work is harder and it is more challenging. We don’t know whether we could cut it if the playing fields were made level. That is just fear and excuses to not work our hardest-to the best of our ability. Thus, we convince ourselves and others that we are better, more superior, deserving, privileged and entitled to win at all costs.

As a survivor of a marriage wrought with ‘intimate partner’ violence, psychological and physical abuses, I have come to believe that when someone constantly degrades you and makes you feel less confident about who you are-your value, your worth- it is because of the way that person feels about him or herself.  If I work feverishly to convince you that I am better, stronger, faster… than you, it is because I need to convince myself that I am at least equal to you and I desperately need recognition of my own value. It is not about you, but it’s about my insecurities, unmet needs, and any personal guilt is masked by overt aggression and cruelty.

Some will hear these put-downs and begin to believe and internalize the words, despite the inner voices which say otherwise. Eventually, we must face ourselves honestly AND others equally as honest, yet, some people never confront their demons. Better to arrive at that point out of desire to evolve and develop empathy than have it thrust upon us unprepared. When that happens, people get hurt.

We see this all too often with police-involved shootings. Implicit bias causes unintended, avoidable harm. When someone does get hurt, families don’t want to hear and won’t accept your excuses. The harm will be perceived avoidable-your fault, your ignorance, and no matter how well defended, deep inside, you know the truth.  It is your fault. Accept it, and learn from it, as a teachable moment. with the understanding that you must learn a new way to think before you can master a new way to be.

In the matter of the elephant in the room, called racism, one would think that we have truly evolved and developed the strength, sense of humanity, fairness and the capacity to engage in a collective and respectful conversation in recognition of that divisive elephant. Not just empty talk, but talk followed by action. Rather, we avoid the inevitable, only to result in volatile, highly charged confrontations with one another, civil unrest and a revolution. The truth hurts, but in the presence of truth, directions can become clear, paths may converge as we all move peacefully, and respectfully in the same direction-forward.

Face the truths-our nation’s truths, our personal truths, and with clear consciences, we may engage in productive conversations framed by a reciprocal dialogue, active listening skills and a desire to broaden our cultural lens. We can thus begin to forge a new path into a brighter future in a democracy shaped by the vision of a collaborative called “We, The People”… united in mission… “in order to form a more perfect union….”!

No more excuses, implicit bias or immaculate perceptions. No more US vs. THEM! We cannot control the world. We can only control ourselves. So, control yourself! We cannot color the world. The world is naturally populated with a beautiful spectrum of hues, shades and colors, and people, too. We MUST appreciate and find awe in their beauty. We MUST not divide and conquer. We MUST conquer our fears…  to live and thrive in a diverse society. Together we stand or divided we fall! Enough falling, folks. We are heading towards global destruction. Name-calling, cultural, religious and gender insensitivity, represent classic ignorance. Implicit bias and blind prejudice should not characterize the way we create positive change!

Implicit, my as..! We have no more excuses in an information-driven society! The next generation of leaders will not respect their elders-us- until we show evidence of growth, strength and a sincere belief in our individual and collective capacity to pursue success by  our individual merits, on our honor, without rigging the system. They will know, even if they never admit it out loud, that we cheated our way to the top. We spread implicit bias around and weren’t brave enough to live up to the U.S. Constitution,  in order to live the American Dream. Wake up, everybody! You must learn a new way to think before you can master a new way to be!

Bilingualism: A 21st Century Asset

¿Hablas Español?

                                            Parlez-vous Français?

Sprechen Sie Deutsche?

The ability to speak at least one language other than your native tongue, being bilingual, is an asset in today’s diverse society. In America, if not already, our unofficial second language should be Spanish, because we have so many Spanish speakers living among us. Chinese, Urdu, Russian, German,…..Italian, and a host of other languages and dialects can be heard spoken by people we pass along on our busy streets everyday. Isn’t anyone curious? Fascinated?

If anyone is prone to paranoia, certainly there must be some degree of curiosity when next to or near two or more people speaking in a language other than English. It is elitist of us, in America, to expect everyone who enters our national borders to speak English in order to acceptably communicate with us.We get offended when someone dares to not know this language, or speaks with very heavy foreign accents. Some even get offended and mock the Southern accent, and associate it with low[er] intelligence or racism when an American-born citizen dares to speak with that southern ‘drawl’. [That’s a different conversation, however.] We can be so insufferably intolerant! It is too difficult to understand foreign accents, we think to ourselves, and communication is strained. At least they make an effort to engage us in our native language, but do we extend the same courtesy?

We say,”This is America. Speak English!” And place the responsibility on others, recent immigrants, foreigners to conform and learn our official language with immediacy. How dare we think and behave so one-sided! Is anyone old enough to remember the time when a general high school diploma could not be earned without studying Latin, that dead language? I understand the reasoning, although I was lucky to graduate high school the first year after Latin was no longer a requirement for graduation. Much of our English words have Latin derivatives. Makes sense. I studied French and mastered Spanish anyway, as elective courses.

That was then, and this is now. The world is a global village, we exist in a global economy and we are to respect and appreciate diversity-even language diversity. Overall, having the ability to speak a second language is a wonderful and highly marketable skill and an undeniable asset. So many career areas pay higher salaries and employers actively recruit professionals with bilingual or multilingual skills, in all career sectors. Especially valuable in the helping professions, and those who work directly with the public, when one can eliminate potential language barriers, he or she tends to wear many hats and possesses great value to employers.  They become the ‘go-to’ person who serves as translator, liaison, advocate and designated communicator. That’s valuable!

Children who are raised in households where the primary spoken language isn’t English, aren’t handicapped at all. As ELLs[English Language Learners], they actually have a great advantage over other children whose primary language is English or monolingual. Allow me to explain some of the many benefits of being bilingual.

  1. Studies show that being bilingual has many cognitive benefits. Speaking a second language can mean that you have a better attention span and can multi-task better than monolinguals. Switching from one side of the brain to the other, constantly provides this benefit. There have been studies showing that bilingualism reduces the risk of having a stroke. Cognitive benefits effect kids and adults.
  2. Bilingualism has educational advantages. Many of the above benefits also can mean there is an advantage at school. Many studies have shown that they are less distracted and more task-focused. A Millennium Cohort study found that young children who are educated in their second language may initially fall behind their peers between 3-5 years old. But, they soon catch up and outperform their peers by age 7.
  3. As stated earlier, languages are highly valued in the workplace, with numerous employment benefits. Being bilingual means that there are more jobs opportunities depending on languages spoken. Bilingual skills is definitely a great plus for a resume, and can boost your chances of landing that job, even when you may not be as qualified as another monolingual applicant.
  4. Speaking a foreign language can be of great benefit when you travel. You can get around in many other countries around the world without knowing or speaking the native or local language. If you can speak the language, imagine how much more fulfilling and enjoyable your experiences will be when there. Immerse yourself in the language and culture and develop empathy, and multicultural sensitivity and awareness, almost effortlessly.
  5. One of the biggest misconceptions is that bilingualism is rare, but being bilingual means you are not the minority. More than half the world speaks more than one language on a daily basis. In fact, in many countries bilingualism is the norm.

Hopefully soon, the rest of the world will catch on, and that means us in the United States of America. Everyone should have the chance to learn a second language and reap the benefits of being bilingual. Imagine…some people are multilingual, and speak up to eight or more languages! That is fantastic, and a 21st Century asset in a global society. Bring foreign languages instruction back into our nation’s schools, not just for ELLs, but native English language speakers, too. Begin instruction as early as elementary school. Everyone benefits,  on a global scale, with bilingual skills. I suggest that we go out and learn a new language…today! ¡Adios!