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Children’s Exposure to Crime Costs U.S. $458B a Year: Study

Childhood exposure to violent crime costs American society $458 billion a year, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.

Building on their previous broad analysis of crime’s impact on children, authors Michael Gilad of the University of Pennsylvania Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, and Abraham Gutman, a staff writer with the Philadelphia Inquirer, quantified the consequences of that impact in areas ranging from health and lost unemployment, to the cost of treatment for substance abuse, to come up with what they said was still a “conservative” estimate.

For example, they estimated the lifetime associated cost for treating one individual for depression associated with childhood trauma at $75 million. In another example, they estimated the average loss of earnings during peak years of unemployment for an individual affected by “direct victimization” to be $5,000-$6,000 a year.

“An astonishing 64.12 percent, or 47.56 million (2.58 million in the 2002 birth cohort) children living in the United States today are affected by at least one form of crime exposure during their childhood,” the authors said in the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Law & Economic Research paper, entitled The Tragedy of Wasted Funds and Broken Dreams: An Economic Analysis of Childhood Exposure to Crime and Violence.

In their earlier, so-called “Triple C Impact” study—short for Comprehensive Childhood Crime Impact—the authors noted, “the observed harms were found to infiltrate all life’s disciplines, ranging from increased involvement with the criminal justice system and heightened risk for substance use, to physical and mental health problems.

“If we go one step further and apply these percentages to the total U.S. population (of all ages), we can conclude that there are approximately 210.5 million individuals walking among us who have been exposed to at least one category of the Triple-C Impact during childhood.”

They added that boys are at a higher risk of exposure, at 66.49 percent, compared to girls at 61.64 percent.

The authors noted that there was wide agreement about the extent of the harm to children caused by exposure to crime, and about the moral imperative to do something about it. In 2012, then-Attorney General Eric E. Holder’s Task Force “declared childhood exposure to crime and violence a ‘national crisis.’”

But, they argued, calculating the “bottom line” costs of such exposure to individuals and society over time would help to galvanize policymakers and the public into action.

“Money talks,” the authors said.

“Despite the severity of the Triple-C Impact problem, and the devastating effect it has on millions of children nationwide, little is done on the policy level to heal the open wounds,” the paper said.

“The majority of children harmed by crime do not receive the much needed services to facilitate recovery from trauma. At present, there are no effective mechanisms in place to identify affected children and refer them to vital services.”

A previously conducted 50-state survey found that “access to the services and resources that can help traumatized youngsters is obstructed by a myriad of bureaucratic labyrinths and system design flaws, including flaws in inter-agency coordination, extensive access barriers, ineffective utilization of resources, and insufficient account for the distinct needs of minor children,” the authors wrote.

As a result, they added, impacted individuals suffer “dire and costly outcomes throughout their childhood and into adulthood.”

The authors pointed out that even when a child is “indirectly exposed” to violence, he or she can be left with “marks that are acute, and often long lasting.”

The authors cited a psychological study showing that being exposed to crime at a young age causes heightened levels of stress, and it “over-stimulation of certain brain structures, which can lead to chemical imbalance in the child’s brain and abnormal neurological development.”

As a result of viewing a violent crime, a child is more likely to grow up and perpetrate similar acts, the research argues. This adds to the justice system’s cost of investigating and prosecuting crime.

Children impacted by Triple-C were also found to have higher rates of substance use and abuse disorders into adulthood, with one study cited calculating the usage odds at 60 percent to 70 percent higher compared to children who were never exposed to crime.

If that same individual were to need outpatient treatment for drug use disorder, it could range from $115 to $270 per week, which accumulates to a minimum of $5,980 per patient every year.

From a mental health and psychological perspective, children exposed to crime-related traumas “were found to have an increased risk of suffering from depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, developmental and behavioral problems, aggression, attention disorders, personality disorders, suicide risk, attachment disorders and deficit in social adaptation,” according to the research paper.

By putting these impacts into a monetary perspective, the authors believe it will persuade policymakers of the need for “early intervention efforts to alleviate the injurious and costly outcomes from children affected by crime exposure.”

“Dollar after dollar, the costs associated with the Triple-C Impact pile one on top of the other,” the study said. “At first glance, some of these cost figures, when viewed in isolation, appear to be negligible.

“However, it is clearly shown that when summed together, considering the high prevalence rates, and the large number of costly adverse outcomes threatening the millions of children affected by the Triple-C Impact, the bottom line is of colossal proportions.

“When the total cost of all Triple-C-Impacted adults in the United States today is calculated, the sum amounts to over $458.7 billion every single year.”

The authors added that they believe their calculation is “conservative,” since it likely underestimates some of the economic impact and doesn’t include children harmed by parental violence.

The paper called for policymakers and politicians to focus on the needs of children affected by violence.

“Children do not have voting power, and their voices are rarely heard in the political debate,” the authors said.

“Although their sweet faces grace election campaigns, when the national budget is distributed they are not present to negotiate their share.”

They concluded: “Since the muffled cries of millions of children across the nation have yet to awaken policymakers to act, perhaps money will ‘talk’ on their behalf and incentivize change.”

The full study can be accessed here.

TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano contributed to this summary.