A Developmental-Contextual Perspective on Youth Covictimization by Community Violence

Article excerpt


Witnessing violence within the community--covictimization--has been recognized as a threat to the optimal development of youth. Following a discussion of methodological issues that plague covictimization research, the literature on covictimization is reviewed, beginning with findings on its prevalence. Correlates of covictimization are then examined within the Shakoor and Chalmers framework, comprising emotional, cognitive, and behavioral domains. Recent lines of research investigating interactions among these three domains are also explored. Further, a developmental-contextual approach toward studying covictimization is outlined and, from this perspective, the relationship of covictimization to social cognition, health-related behaviors, parenting, and social support is discussed. Finally, recommendations for further research are presented.

In 1995, more than one million assaults, 97,000 rapes, and 21,000 murders were reported in the United States (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1997). Although public health statistics report the incidence of victimization, youth are more often witnesses to violence (Fitzpatrick & Boldizar, 1993; Richters & Martinez, 1993; Schubiner, Scott, & Tzelepis, 1993). Observing violence against another person is itself traumatic (Warner & Weist, 1996), and has been referred to as covictimization (Shakoor & Chalmers, 1991). Covictimization has been hypothesized as posing severe challenges to the development of youth (Martinez & Richters, 1993; Richters & Martinez, 1993; Shakoor & Chalmers, 1991).

This paper reviews the literature on covictimization among youth. First, however, it must be noted that methodological issues plague research on covictimization. There are few measures of covictimization. The most commonly used measures (e.g., Richters & Saltzman, 1990) tend to be lengthy, are difficult to score, and lack adequate psychometric analysis. Further, there is no standard operationalization of covictimization. Some measures group direct victimization and covictimization together; others include hearing about another's victimization without witnessing it. Finally, youth in low-income urban areas are exposed to a host of factors that influence the likelihood of covictimization and adaptation (Bell, 1982; Warner & Weist, 1996). Chronic stressors include high rates of crime, unemployment or underemployment, substandard housing, and limited educational, mental health, and medical resources (Attar, Guerra, & Tolan, 1994; Warner & Weist, 1996); collectively, these have been referred to as neighborhood di sadvantage (Attar et al., 1994). The effects of covictimization are not easily separated from, and are often confounded with, those of other contextual factors, such as neighborhood disadvantage. However, contextual factors are rarely included in models of adaptation to covictimization. Given these methodological problems, sampling, measurement, and contextual information (e.g., participant ethnicity) are reported wherever possible in the present review.


Research on the prevalence of covictimization among youth has surged in the past decade. For example, Richters and Martinez (1993) surveyed 128 parent-child dyads (ages 6 through 10) from a moderately violent neighborhood in Washington, DC. Information was gathered regarding the frequency with which the children had experience with various forms of violence and violence-related activities in the community, from threats to serious injuries and death. The children were more likely to have witnessed violence than to have been direct victims of it. Approximately one-fifth of the first and second graders reported that they had been victimized by violence, whereas three-fifths reported witnessing the victimization of others. Among the fifth and sixth graders, over one-third reported victimization and nearly three-quarters reported seeing someone being victimized (for example, 43% witnessed a mugging and 14% witnessed a shooting). …


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