Talking about the Silent Fear: Adolescents' Experiences of Violence in an Urban High-Rise Community

Article excerpt

Children in America today are experiencing and being exposed to a greater degree of violence than past generations. Homicide is the second leading cause of death for persons 15 to 24 years of age and is the leading cause of death for African Americans (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997; Christoffel, 1990). The intensity of violence, particularly in cities across the country, has caused some researchers to compare urban environments to those of war zones around the world (Garbarino, Kostelny, & Dubrow, 1991b). It is only in recent years that researchers and community service providers have begun to address the social and emotional impact of community violence on children and adolescents from their own perspective.

The HOME (High-rise On-site Multifamily Environments) Family Support Project based in Chicago is an interdisciplinary, community-university collaborative effort that provides the context for ecologically valid community-based research, practice, and policy-making. All activities within the HOME project are designed to prevent and reduce social and economic costs related to violence, isolation, and poverty. The long-term commitment and hands-on nature of the HOME project provides the ecologically valid context (see Bronfenbrenner, 1986) for this examination of adolescents' experiences and beliefs about their own and their community's well-being.

This study is an exploratory investigation of adolescents' experiences and beliefs about violence and safety in one setting, using their own words. The specific purposes of this qualitative study were: (1) to assess the violent experiences of youth living in a public-subsidized urban high-rise; (2) to provide adolescents with an opportunity to express their feelings and ideas related to safety issues in their neighborhood; and (3) to utilize the results of these data in the development of appropriate family support programs aimed at violence prevention.

RELATED RESEARCH

Violence refers to immediate or chronic situations that result in injury to the psychological, social, or physical well-being of individuals or groups (American Psychological Association, 1993). Although violence involving youth is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States, both its quantity and quality have undergone dramatic changes within the past 10 to 15 years. While statistics cannot tell the whole story, they do illustrate the intensity of the problem. For example, homicide is the most common cause of death for young African Americans, and is the second leading cause of death for Latino youth 15 to 24 years of age (American Psychological Association, 1993; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997). In part because of the ready availability of firearms in this country, guns are involved in more than 80% of adolescent killings (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997). In a study of first and second graders in Washington, DC, 45% reported that they had witnessed muggings, 31% said the y had witnessed shootings, and 39% said they had seen dead bodies (American Psychological Association, 1993). Increasingly, violence is experienced in some settings as a nearly continuous series of random and threatening events.

Violence, however, is not evenly distributed across all neighborhoods and demographic groups. Evidence suggests that it occurs at a higher rate in low income/no income neighborhoods, disproportionately among the young, and in public places (Bell & Jenkins, 1993). In Chicago, the six areas with the highest crime rates were also the poorest areas in the city (Recktenwald, 1991). In other cities, similar patterns occur where relatively small areas of the city contribute disproportionately to the violent crime rate ("A Tour of the Urban Killing Fields," 1989). Further, both the victims and perpetrators of violence are increasingly youths. In Chicago, approximately 30% of the homicides in 1990 involved victims age 20 and younger, and 44% of the perpetrators were age 20 and younger (Chicago Police Department, 1990). …