The Public Assault on America's Children: Poverty, Violence and Juvenile Injustice

By Epps, Beverly D. | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Public Assault on America's Children: Poverty, Violence and Juvenile Injustice


Epps, Beverly D., The Journal of Negro Education


The Public Assault on America's Children: Poverty, Violence and Juvenile Injustice, edited by Valerie Polakow. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000. 212 pp. $14.95, paper.

Reviewed by Beverly D. Epps, Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Public Assault on America's Children, edited by Valerie Polakow, is a comprehensive look at systemic violence against children in the United States. The authors consider the implementation of any policy, practice, or procedure, that excludes, harms, or denies children their civil rights, an act of violence. They firmly situate these acts of violence in social policies. The purpose of this book is to reveal these "less visible" acts of violence and inform the public of the unintended discriminatory effects of social policy. The authors are child advocates who have years of experience in social policy and the arena of juvenile justice. The tone in their voices escalates from quiet articulation of the facts and figures on acts of violence against children to righteous indignation over the social injustices inflicted upon children-specifically children of color.

The book consists of an introduction followed by cohesive chapters that are grouped into three sections. In the introduction, Polakow documents the impact of changes in social polices on poor families. Polakow shows how the legislation that links aid to requirements for mandatory work takes the food out of poor children's mouths and reduces their access to quality child care. She also cites statistics that show a disproportionate number of the children impacted by such legislation are children of color.

Her discussion shifts to the historic existence of inequities in education resources, expectations, and outcomes for poor Black children. She provides commentary about policies meant to increase school safety to protect children and about the children who are left unprotected by these policies. Polakow also questions the disproportionate numbers of Black children who are expelled from school and incarcerated in adult jails. Against this backdrop, Polakow lays the groundwork for a discussion of research on children's rights and systemic acts of violence perpetrated against children under the veil of public policy.

In Part I, Barbara Finkelstein begins the discussion with a historical perspective on how religious, political, and economic practices influence public policy. She details how the practices of society shelter the rights of parents and limit government intervention. Her analysis reveals how the practices or "traditions" have left children vulnerable to the adverse circumstances that surround them. Finkelstein suggests that if we are going to break the cycle of violence against children, then we must revisit the traditional lines that have been drawn between public and private lives, church and state, and the "haves" and "have nots."

Sue Books gives an example of the line between the haves and the have nots in her analysis of the increasing numbers of poor children with the environmentally induced health problems of tuberculosis, asthma, and lead poisoning. Citing medical research and government reports, Books' maintains that the problem is not in the diseases themselves but it is in the choices society makes in how they handle the problems. She claims that the haves can provide their children with healthy home environments, while the have nots are expected to cope with the diseases brought on by deplorable living conditions. She places the health problems in the context of the social and moral issues surrounding the unequal distribution of wealth in this country.

These health problems and the stress that comes with them make up a part of what Joseph Vorrasi and James Garbarino refer to as the "socially toxic" world of poor children. These authors debunk the perception of a direct link between poverty and youth violence by exploring how risk factors in a socially toxic world become mediating factors between poverty and youth violence.

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