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

Article excerpt

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. They suggest that the public must understand the social construction of youth violence or they will continue to believe what they see portrayed bv the media.

LynNell Hancock examines the media's portrayal of youth and how the media shapes the public's perception of children who commit violent crimes. In her analysis of newspaper accounts involving children committing crimes, she found that many of the newspapers only reported the hard cold facts of the story, and then linked the story with similar crimes. Hancock views this "dehumanizing" of the children-indiscriminately flashing the faces of children on the screen with little or no information or reporting information with little or no evidence-as an act of violence. According to the statistics she presents, a disproportionate number of the faces and circumstances are those of minority children. Hancock sees a need for news reporting that goes beyond the isolated incident of the child's crime. She suggests that reporting a child's crime as an isolated incident, devoid of the human and community frailties, permits the public to see the child as a deviant-- someone to be feared. This type of reporting encourages tougher sanctions and the removal of responsibility for the child from the public domain.

In the second part of the book the authors investigate the impact of zero-tolerance policies on children and children's perspectives of violence in school. Sasha Polakow-- Suransky collected expulsion data from Michigan Public Schools where they have one of the toughest zero-tolerance policies in the nation. His analysis of data reveals what he considers a form of legalized truancy and discrimination. Disproportionate numbers of minority students were expelled and continue to be expelled with no access to an alternative education and little opportunity for readmission to an educational program. Effectually, they are denied their right of a free and appropriate public education. Polakow-- Suransky challenges the Michigan legislature to pass laws that will protect the civil rights of children and make it mandatory for expelled children to be referred to quality alternative education programs.

Based on a study of middle school children and their perceptions of violence in the school, Pedro Noguera concludes that schools should not focus keenly on controls and sanctions. His study reveals the importance of relationships between adults and children and supports other studies which show the importance of school climate in creating and maintaining a safe school environment.

Part III examines the harsh realities of legislative shifts from punishment to expulsion to incarceration of children for their indiscretions and the injustice of juvenile systems. Bernadine Dohrn explains that money, once funneled into education programs, is now being used to "expand the mechanisms of social control" (p. 159). The penalty of expulsion has become an accepted mode of discipline without looking beyond the immediate consequences of such actions. He indicts schools and their current policies as symptomatic of society's desires to situate problems in the individuals instead of in the complexities of social reality. He criticizes legislation that permits the courts to try a child, who has committed a status offense, as an adult and send him or her to an adult prison. Dohrn describes this as one of the most egregious crimes against children and James Bell shows the reader why.

In the last chapter of the book, James Bell describes the conditions of confinement faced by increasing numbers of juvenile. His descriptions unveil adult jails as institutions that do nothing more than warehouse juveniles. Bell is a strong advocate for revamping juvenile facilities to include strategies and programs designed to rehabilitate and transition the juvenile back into mainstream society. It is his contention that anything less than this marginalizes these children to the outer fringes of society.

These provocative essays lift the veil of public policy and expose crimes against children by using information and arguments that are rooted in research. Researchers might find the descriptions of studies lacking in empirical data. Still, they would be able to make the connections between the studies and the authors' conclusions, because echoing the facts and figures are the voices of the families and the children. Policymakers would find this book useful as well as educators struggling to make a difference in the lives of children. These essays do not permit a deficit view of any child or any group of individuals. Instead, they encourage educators and others to view each child within his or her social context without stereotyping or stigmatizing the individual.