Why Ask About Youth Victimization?

The comprehensive assessment of youth victimization can help meet the goals of a number of different tasks that are performed by many types of professionals.

Clinical assessment & services for individual children or families

Providers in many settings are accustomed to asking about a narrow range of victimizations.  Child protective service workers tend to focus on violence by caregivers and seldom look beyond to violence a child might be experiencing in his neighborhood or school.  School counselors may see a child who has been referred for bullying—either as a victim or as a perpetrator—and not ask what is going on at home.  Advocates in shelters for battered women typically focus on the home situation and in some cases may avoid all direct questions about victimization.  Pediatricians ask about all types of developmental risk factors at well-baby and well-child visits but seldom ask about victimization, although it poses one of the greatest risks to physical, social and even cognitive development. 

These practices, although widespread, are problematic for several reasons.  Perhaps first and foremost, it can be difficult and confusing for a child who is being victimized to be referred for “help” and even taken to a clinic or shelter, and then not be given the opportunity to disclose all that is happening to them.  It is not realistic to expect children to take the responsibility for guiding these interactions with professionals—even adults can find it hard to be assertive with “experts.”  A child’s sense of helplessness and despair may actually be exacerbated by contact with helping professionals who do not address the full burden of victimization. Related to this is the need to do a comprehensive assessment both to ethically meet the needs of these children and also to develop sound and safe intervention strategies. 

How is this done?  Incorporating victimization assessment into client intake would be the most common way to enhance clinical assessment and treatment planning.  Periodic re-evaluation is also a possibility.

Identifying the needs of children in your community through needs assessment

Good, thorough information is needed for the best decisions about program planning, allocation of resources, and a variety of other policy and administrative decisions.  Even if current resources do not permit a major expansion of services, it is important to know the true extent of the need so that future program planning can take this into account.

A good community needs assessment can also assist with the allocation of existing resources to make sure that they are being used in the best way, given current funding and other resource constraints.

Finally, high quality data on community needs can be powerful tools for advocating for additional resources or the need to change existing institutional structures.  For example, the Department of Justice’s new Defending Childhood Initiative, by promoting better communication and coordination across multiple service providers, is in part due to recognition that many families are simultaneously served by many different agencies.  Institutional resources might be better spent if duplicate efforts are avoided and if someone helps families navigate multiple systems.  Even more importantly, outcomes for children and families might be substantially improved by a more comprehensive, holistic approach to services. 

Surveys can be useful mechanisms for obtaining such information, because in addition to collecting information on the full extent of victimization, respondents are also often willing to share information on what types of services they have used or attempted to use.  This can provide an excellent snapshot of service use without dealing with the need to get individual releases of information or institutional memoranda of understanding. 

How is this done?  Community needs assessments are most often done as surveys of the general population in a town, state, or other region.  Needs assessments can also be done for a particular target group, such as patients seen in local emergency departments.  Sometimes needs assessments are also done on a regular basis in order to monitor trends.  For needs assessments, unlike many clinical purposes or program evaluations, it would be common to recruit an entirely new sample into subsequent waves of the survey. 

Program evaluation: Determining whether a prevention or intervention program is effective

Another important use of victimization questionnaires is finding out if your prevention or intervention program is helping.  Some skills taught in prevention programs, such as conflict resolution, can apply to many different types of violent or potentially violent situations, and it would be important to know whether your program is affecting multiple types of violence.

Many violence prevention programs only examine knowledge and attitudes about violence.  Although these can be important precursors to violent actions, they are not the same as violence and they are not truly the ultimate goal of most programs.  The goals of most programs are not simply to change attitudes about violence, but to actually reduce violence itself.  The only way to know this is by collecting data on violent behavior.  This can be accomplished by interviewing youth themselves, or also by collecting data from family members, teachers, or others who spend time with children. 

Similarly, in many settings there is increased demand for “evidence-based practice” for individual and group interventions.  The main way that interventions are determined to be evidence-based is by collecting data on whether the programs change the target behavior (such as violence). 

How is this done?  Program evaluations require, at a minimum, two waves of data collection.  First, all participants need to be assessed before they begin the prevention or intervention program, in order to establish a baseline (the pretest).  Then, participants must be assessed again, after the program is completed, in order to determine if any change has occurred.  This is called the posttest.

These minimum requirements can be enhanced through two common strategies.  One is to collect more than one wave of follow-up data.  For example, data might be collected at the end of the last day of a group program, and then participants might be contacted again, perhaps 3 months and 6 months after participation, to see if any changes have been maintained. 

The second possibility is to add a control group to the evaluation.  This would involve collecting pretest and posttest data from a group that did not receive the prevention or intervention, but is similar to the group that did.  Control groups are useful because they can help eliminate other causes of changes.  For example, young children might show less violent behavior over time because of developmental increases in maturity.  Sometimes youth are exposed to media stories, public service announcements, or other factors that might affect their behavior or their risk-taking.  Because there are many reasons why children might change, evaluations with a control group are considered the gold standard. 

Learning more about youth victimization

There are still many basic questions about youth victimization that we know very little about.  For example, we are still learning about all of the ways in which different forms of violence and victimization overlap and intersect.  More comprehensive assessments of victimization can enhance basic research on victimization.  Currently, many studies of violence and victimization tend to study one type in isolation from others, such as bullying or dating violence.  When researchers label a group “dating violence victims,” they can imply that any consequences or risk factors associated with that group are due to the dating violence.  It is now known, however, that virtually all of the individuals in that group are likely to have other forms of victimization as well.  To better understand the true burden of youth victimization requires comprehensive assessments.

How is this done?  More comprehensive assessments of victimization can be added to research projects.  These can be used to examine the co-occurrence among different forms of violence.  They can also be used to statistically control for exposures to other forms of violence, if researchers are interested in focusing on one specific type.