This week, former President Bill Clinton did a wide-ranging interview on CNN with Erin Burnett. Clinton specifically addressed the recent domestic violence scandal involving Ray Rice in which the Baltimore Ravens running back dealt, literally, a knockout blow to his then-fiancée. Clinton said, "I know a lot about this subject, I grew up in a home with domestic violence." In his 2004 autobiography, My Life, Clinton wrote:
I didn't need to be in a secret fraternity to have secrets. I had real secrets of my own, rooted in Daddy's alcoholism and abuse. They got worse when I was fourteen and in the ninth grade and my brother [Roger] was only four. One night Daddy closed the door to his bedroom, started screaming at Mother, then began to hit her.
What has been conspicuously absent in the prolific coverage of this NFL fiasco, is that Rice and his now wife, Janay, have a young child together. Although the child wasn't in the elevator in Atlantic City when Janay was knocked unconscious, we should be extremely concerned about what violence the child may have witnessed at home. Based on the severity of the attack, it would be naïve to believe that this videotaped beating was the first and only time -- merely an anomaly -- that there has been domestic violence between this couple.
I have spent the majority of my career prosecuting crimes against children and know well how even the witnessing of violence against a loved one can forever alter a child's life. To state the obvious, most children who experience domestic violence don't later become President of the United States, but conversely are far more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system as both victims and perpetrators.
Our earliest influences have the strongest impact on whether we'll commit a violent crime. While there are a number of factors behind a person's violent actions, the home of a child is the least discussed, and in my opinion the most important, arena for stopping the cycle of violence. Studies show that when a child is abused, witnesses domestic violence, or is emotionally neglected and abandoned, the chances of that child's acting out in a violent way dramatically increase.
Certainly violence can be found everywhere; no one is ever completely safe. But there's no denying that most violent crimes happen among the poorest people. Compounding the problem even further, children are far more likely than adults to either witness or be the victim of violence. It's clear that early intervention is critical; our childhood experiences often can determine whether we become socially and emotionally healthy or unbalanced and dangerous.
Dr. James Garbarino, a highly respected authority on juvenile aggression and violence, writes that children, "fall victim to an unfortunate synchronicity between the demons inhabiting their own internal world and the corrupting influences of modern American culture. They lose their way in the pervasive experience of vicious violence, crude sexuality, shallow materialism, mean-spirited competitiveness, and spiritual emptiness. These factors affect us all to some degree, but they poison these especially vulnerable kids." Dr. Garbarino, who serves as an adviser to a wide range of organizations, including the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse, the National Institute for Mental Health, and the FBI, found that exposure to early trauma often distorts a person's "social map" and dramatically expands the circumstances in which one might feel that aggression is "appropriate."
In the course of my career as a criminal prosecutor, I've reviewed hundreds of sentencing reports detailing the lives of violent criminals and nonviolent criminals. Not surprisingly, there are a few nearly universal factors: the defendants were neglected or abused, exposed to violence very early, and usually lived in neighborhoods where there was an influx of guns and drugs. More often than not, individuals who later become violent lacked nurturing at a young age. Former gang member and author K. C. Waters writes about moral development for the child growing up in an inner-city neighborhood. He attributes the "gangster mentality" to a lack of family nurturing and an immersion in guns and drugs in their community. Waters concludes that a violent attitude has become "a characteristic trait in these environments."
Neurologists studying childhood development have discovered that the brain develops differently in young children exposed to trauma. But one needn't be a neurologist or psychiatrist to understand that the abused, neglected, and traumatized are more likely to become violent adults. We can marvel at a child's seemingly supernatural growth spurt in cognitive functioning -- for example, the enviable ability to learn language at speeds that leave most adult brains in the dust. But this sponge-like quality doesn't only absorb the positive stuff with breakneck efficiency; it's also highly susceptible to the negative.
Children who see violence in the home tend to have trouble bonding with others and feeling empathy, factors that can lead to the child's becoming violent later in life. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that children who witness domestic violence have higher levels of aggression, hostility, anger, oppositional behavior, fear, and anxiety.
In addition, maltreated children often have significantly impaired cognitive and emotional development, making it more likely they'll commit violent acts as adults. In particular, children who suffer direct physical abuse are far more likely to become violent themselves later in life than those who don't. According to a study by the National Institute of Justice, abused and neglected children are eleven times more likely to be arrested as juveniles and, as adults, nearly three times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime than those who are not abused or neglected.
The bottom line is that domestic violence is not just a crime against the significant other, it is a crime against the whole family and the aspiration of a less violent future generation.