The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Children Exposed to Violence—in the Broken Home

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Among law-enforcement officers combating inner-city violence, many lament the particularly high social costs of violence that traumatizes the young. Unfortunately, a new study suggests that the vulnerability of urban youth to violence has tragically increased in recent decades as a consequence of family breakdown.

Conducted by researchers at Northeastern University and the State University of New York, Albany, this new study assesses the likelihood that youth with differing ethnic, individual, and family characteristics will be exposed to violence. The researchers contextualize their study by pointing out that while “homicide is a leading cause of death among young Americans, accounting for 14.8% of deaths among persons aged 10 to 24 years . . . homicide reflects only a small portion of adolescent violence. Estimates indicate that the ratio of nonfatal to fatal assaults is as high as 100 to 1, and studies have found that between 50% and 96% of urban youths have witnessed some form of community violence (e.g., seeing a shooting or assault, hearing a gunshot) in their lifetime.” The authors of the new study choose to focus on this “secondary exposure to community violence” because of the “documented negative health consequences for youths exposed to chronic violence.” The “epidemic levels of exposure to violence faced by children and adolescents across the United States” indeed make the investigation of its antecedents a matter of great urgency.   

To complete their assessment of the “secondary exposure” to violence among urban youth, the researchers parse data collected from 2,344 individuals living in 80 Chicago neighborhoods. These data reveal that Hispanic and Black youth are decidedly more likely to be exposed to violence than are White peers. The researchers, in fact, calculate that Hispanic youth are 74% more likely than White peers to be exposed to violence, and that Black youth are 112% more likely.

But in further analysis, much of the ethnic gap in youth vulnerability reflects “family background factors, individual differences, and neighborhood factors.” One-third (33%) of the gap separating Hispanic youth from White youth in their exposure to violence disappears in a statistical model that accounts for these family-background factors, individual differences, and neighborhood factors. And over half (53%) of the gap separating Black youth from White youth in their exposure to violence likewise disappears in parallel statistical analysis. 

Given the way family life has imploded in urban America, the researchers are justified in attending particularly to family structure as a predictor of young people’s vulnerability to violence. Across the three ethnic groups studied, the researchers find “the odds of being exposed to violence were significantly lower for adolescents whose parents are married (O[dds]R[atio]=0.78).” But then married-couple households are not now equally common in the three ethnic populations in view. The researchers acknowledge that among the youth they tracked, “Whites and Hispanics were more likely to live with two biological parents who are married, whereas Blacks were more likely to live with a single, unmarried parent.” These differences in family background thus clearly help to create the ethnic gap in youth exposure to violence.

No one reading this new study of youth exposure to violence will conclude that family life alone determines the risk of such exposure.  But this study makes quite clear that intact parental marriage counts as a significant shield against such exposure. Tragically, in an urban world where divorce courts are busier than wedding chapels, far too few young people now enjoy that protection.

(Gregory M. Zimmerman and Steven F. Messner, “Individual, Family Background, and Contextual Explanations of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Youths’ Exposure to Violence,” American Journal of Public Health 103.3 [2013]: 435-42.)