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Youths in crisis.

In the past few decades, there has been a silent crisis for youths exploding in both the United States and around the globe. Although children have traditionally been our hope for the future, we are seeing the gradual diminishment, and in some cases destruction, of institutions and organizations that care for our children. According to Giroux (2003), "A seismic change has taken place in which youth are now being framed as a generation of shiftless, riff-raff, thugs, or potential terrorists and hence, a threat to public life" (p. 175). Rather than helping youths navigate the turbulence they experience growing up in the current social order, society quickly labels young people as undesirable troublemakers and perceives them as disposable commodities. In an increasingly neoliberal, market-driven, global economy, children are viewed as unproductive, infantile, and dependent. However, when youths threaten the adult world, they are punished as adults with sentences commensurate with the adult criminal justice system. By denying their value to society, it is possible to negate their humanity and relegate them to a minor footnote in terms of social priorities.

From a global perspective, there are some impressive examples of children in crisis. It is estimated that approximately 1 billion children are currently living in poverty and lack the basic necessities of life to develop and survive. One in three children has inadequate shelter, one in five has no access to safe drinking water, and one in seven has a total lack of basic health care services (UNICEF, 2004). More than 120 million children of primary age do not attend school or have access to an educational institution. In terms of violence and war, millions of children are ravaged and killed by armed conflict. In Iraq, for example, since 1991, over 500,000 children have died as the indirect result of war due to malnutrition and treatable diseases. Finally, the 2009 UNAIDS report pointed to HIV/AIDS as one of the leading causes of death among children worldwide. According to this report ending in 2008, over 2.1 million children are currently living with AIDS, and 14 million children in Africa have been orphaned due to HIV/AIDS (UNICEF, 2004).

In the United States, in addition to poverty, war, and health care concerns, other serious issues that affect children that cannot be disavowed include violence, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, foster care, and traumatic events.

Violence among youths is multifaceted. Homicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24 years. Violent cyclical behaviors are often fostered by young people's personal experiences. A youth may experience harmful, violent behaviors by being a witness, an offender, or a victim of a violent act. Often, these experiences overlap and reoccur with more frequency than we would like to believe. Violent incidents can vary in intensity and degree, from bullying through psychological or physical harm to the death of a young person. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2006, reports indicate that on average 16 young people per day were murdered. Of these homicide victims, 87 percent were male. In 2007, 1,350 juvenile offenders were arrested for murder, 3,580 for forcible rape, and 57,650 for aggravated assaults (Puzzanchera, 2009). These numbers are daunting. It can be easy to prejudge the youths who are committing heinous crimes. However, it is not only important to be aware of the volume of serious crimes by juveniles, but also to consider what factors may have led to these incidents. From 1992 to 1999, juveniles charged with school-associated homicides were "nine times as likely as victims" to have exhibited suicidal behavior prior to committing the murder, "being more than twice as likely as victims to have been bullied by their peers" (Anderson et al., 2001, p. 2695). Repeated exposure to unpredictable violence interferes with the development of adolescents' coping skills. These youths will often attempt to cope with a threatening environment by restricting their internal processing (that is, restricting their affective responses, resulting in a deregulation of emotion) (Cook et al., 2005). This constriction may lead to their inability to organize any type of coherent response, leading to a reliance on highly charged emotions as a means of defense and protection in what is perceived to be a hostile environment. The ensuing explosion of violence can lead to tragic outcomes for some of these youths.

In the United States, adolescent mortality through intentional self-harm, suicide, or both has been documented as being the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 19 years (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007). Biyearly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts nationwide surveys, studying trends in suicidal behaviors of ninth- through 12th-grade students in public high schools. In 2001, national results concluded that 19 percent of high school teenagers surveyed had considered suicide as a serious option, with 15 percent making plans to attempt suicide (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002). Between 2005 and 2007, recent surveys suggest that suicide-related behaviors among youths showed minimal decline.

Although it is well documented that having a stable, consistent caregiver positively affects the formation and maintenance of healthy relationships for children, often short-term, multiple placements of foster care can significantly impede this developmental process. Such is the case for a large volume of children and youths in the United States. Of the children in foster care in 2006, almost a quarter (24 percent) were in relative homes, and nearly half (46 percent) were in nonrelative foster family homes. Since the decline in the number of children in foster care) in 2002, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children, Youth, and Families (ACF), and the Children's Bureau estimated that the number of children served increased from 787,000 in 2004 to 797,000 in 2005 and 798,000 in 2006 (ACE 2009).The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System Report of 2009 estimated 510,000 children to have been in U.S. foster care as of September 2006 (ACE 2009; Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2009).

One million children are exploited by the global commercial sex trade every year (U.S. Department of State, 2005). The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 considers people under the age of 18 who are forced or coerced to perform commercial sex acts as victims of domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) (U.S. Department of State, 2008). Research indicates that youths in the United States are among the most vulnerable of populations to become victims of DMST. Slightly more than half of all victims in alleged human trafficking incidents are reported as being U.S. citizens, accounting for 63 percent of sex-trafficking victims. Approximately two-thirds (27 percent) of victims in alleged DMST incidents are ages 17 or younger. Children as young as five are increasingly becoming commodities to a growing sex trade industry. The U.S. Department of Justice states that the average age for being coerced into commercial sexual exploitation is between 11 and 14 years. Coercions typically take the form of a promise of education, money, or a better way of life, made to the youth or the parents by the sex traffickers.

Adolescents, particularly ethnic minority youths riving in urban settings, are exposed to a range of traumatic events from economic hardships, poverty, and homelessness to loss of family members due to illness and injury. Youths experiencing this level of ongoing trauma are at increased risk for emotional distress--posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and dependence, and major depressive episodes--compared with very young children and middle-age adults. Subsequently, teenagers have an increased risk for ongoing physical and social difficulties, resulting in impaired affect regulation (Cook et al., 2005). These young people live in a daily crisis, with no means to resolve the problems with which they are confronted. Often, their only outlets are to either implode, becoming withdrawn and depressed, or explode, becoming angry and resentful. Either extreme can lead to further devastating consequences and little hope for the future.

These are only a few examples of the plight and oppression of youths throughout the world today. As social workers, we play a pivotal role in addressing these issues on micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Social workers are often the frontline professionals with whom youths come in contact. We have the capability of providing youths with the shelter and protection from the storm of crises that fill their lives. We have the resources to steer them away from disaster and the know how to keep them from self-destruction. As professional advocates, we can provide young people with a voice that often goes unheard in adult society as well as the motivation to move forward despite the odds against them. And, finally, we can develop better ways of assisting children and adolescents through the crises of today and provide them with hope for a brighter future.


Three articles address critical issues of children and youths in foster care. Detlaff and Rycraft, in their research titled "Factors Contributing to Disproportionality in the Child Welfare System: Views from the Legal Community," examine the question of why there is a disproportionate number of African American children currently placed in the foster care system. Through focus groups with judges, district attorneys, and private attorneys in two counties in Texas, the authors examined the perspective of legal professionals to ascertain the reasons for this inequality and potentially biased decision-making process currently being used by child welfare and the court system. Ironically, court personnel did not address weaknesses and limitations in the legal system as contributing to the influx of African American children into the foster care system. The findings of this study are illuminating and can be extremely useful in addressing the issue of disproportionality in the child welfare system.

Although the overrepresentation of African American youths in the foster care system is one critical issue demanding our attention, another essential area of concern is the educational needs of foster children. Zetlin, Weinberg, and Shea, in their study "Caregivers, School Liaisons, and Agency Advocates Speak Out about the Educational Needs of Children and Youths in Foster Care," address the necessity that educational needs of foster children must be a collaborative responsibility among numerous professionals and agencies. The authors conducted research involving four separate focus groups comprising foster parents and caregivers, school district counselors, foster youth liaisons, and education liaisons. Outcomes of the focus groups uncovered problematic themes such as searching for resources, struggles with schools for needed resources, and the stress of caregiving. A second major theme was the overall recognition that each representative group lacked a shared view of what was needed for the foster care youths. The article concludes with recommendations for designing a model to strategically address the barriers for foster care youths within the current educational system.

As recognized earlier, having healthy relationships with consistent caregivers is crucial to the development of adolescents. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than among foster care youths, who are not afforded the opportunity to engage in such relationships while often living in multiple out-of-home placements. Spencer, Collins, Ward, and Smashnaya, authors of "Mentoring for Young People Leaving Foster Care: Promise and Potential Pitfalls," address a variety of mentoring approaches for foster care youths, such as the traditional model of matching youths with adult mentors who meet regularly; online mentoring programs wherein the mentors and youths communicate via regular e-mail messages; or peer mentoring programs, in which those youths who have transitioned out of foster care and are in independent living mentor those youths who are still in care. The authors point out that current research on formal mentoring with foster care youths is largely limited to descriptions of programs, with little or no empirical evidence regarding how mentoring programs enhance the well-being of transitioning foster care youths. The authors provide an engaging dialogue, arguing the potential for harm should mentoring programs not be available to these youths. In doing so, they offer a set of considerations to enhance the mentoring experience by foster care youths.

On a related topic, Roby and White address the growth of adoption services being offered on the Internet in their article titled "Adoption Activities on the Internet: A Call for Regulation." Following an extensive examination of Internet adoption services available for both domestic and international adoptions, the authors describe the pros and cons of Internet adoption Web services as well as the need for strict regulation of these types of services. Although there are certain positive benefits for providing adoption information via the Internet, it is clear that there are potentially serious risks and pitfalls to such a practice. Because social workers play a major role in adoption activities in the United States and internationally, the authors provide guidelines for the profession in navigating this risky terrain.

Lindhorst, Casey, and Meyers expose serious problems with the system that provides Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) in addressing intimate partner abuse among female clients. Although the Family Violence Option mandates that women in abusive situations receive information about TANF waivers and community resources, the authors found that only half of women disclosing violence were given this information. In addition, out of hundreds of clients across 11 different sites in four states, only a small percentage reported abuse despite research indicating that a quarter of TANF recipients experience intimate partner abuse. The implications of this study for women and their children in homes where there is violence are numerous. Recommendations for systemic changes are delineated.

Other important child welfare issues are addressed by Gustavasson and MacEachron in their commentary "Poverty and Child Welfare, 101 Years Later." The authors examine families of poverty in the child welfare system since the First White House Conference on Children in 1909. They suggest that an inattention to the poverty-related needs of families in the welfare system will only serve to propagate the serious disruption that occurs within these family units. Clearly, it is time for a Second White House Conference on Children, already legislatively approved. Although enormous changes have taken place in the past century, certain glaring facts remain the same.

Finally, Lens addresses the lack of respect for welfare clients in her commentary titled "RESPECT: The Missing Policy Tool of Welfare Reform." Through interviews with welfare recipients, the author describes an environment of threats, sanctions, and distrust that leads to anger and resentment. Welfare workers who treat their clients with fairness and cooperation gain their trust through a collaborative working relationship based on mutual respect. Lens calls for training welfare workers on the most effective means of working with clients in a professionally competent and ethical manner and, by doing so, improving the overall effectiveness of agencies.

In keeping with the discussion of how exposure to traumatic events influences violent behavior among youths, in "Growing Together: Expanding Roles for Social Work Practice in Early Childhood Settings," Azzi-Lessing provides an insightful review of early childhood programs and a historical introduction to early childhood interventions. Although highlighting the ways in which traumatic early life experiences, often experienced by these children, can affect the development of children's complex emotions and social skills, Azzi-Lessing suggests that the social worker's role is to not only expand their skills and knowledge, but also to advocate for policies that promote effective interventions. The author introduces early childhood education programs that have been gaining momentum over the past two decades. Azzi-Lessing provides a thorough review of these programs, such as Early Head Start, launched in 1995, and other preschool educational initiatives. This informative article provides social workers with a knowledge base for understanding early childhood programs, an appreciation for the need for cultural competency, and information about opportunities for leadership in developing and promoting these types of programs.

There is much focus on traumatic events experienced by adolescents and youths, primarily of heterosexual orientation. As well, there is ample empirical evidence supporting the increase in substance abuse among populations of youths who have experienced trauma. Traumatic events are multidimensional and are best illustrated on the basis of the perceptions of the person experiencing the trauma. For gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB) youths, many of the challenges and traumas may be the same. However, some of these experiences may be amplified simply by being members of a stigmatized group, as recognized in Padilla, Crisp, and Rew's article "Parental Acceptance and Illegal Drug Use among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Adolescents: Results from a National Survey." GLB youths are no different than heterosexual youths in their vulnerability to substance abuse as a means of coping with perceived trauma, and, in some cases, it may be argued that these youths are at even greater risk for abusing drugs and alcohol (D'Augelli et al., 2006). This article sampled adolescents self-identifying as GLB, via a large national online survey, examining the extent to which family support and their involvement with the GLB community may buffer the effects of life stressors on the incidents of substance abuse. Social workers will be afforded an awareness of the importance and significance of parental acceptance and positive family relationships shown to decrease the risk of substance abuse in GLB adolescents.

The plight of homeless children is the topic of the final commentary of this issue, in which White describes her six-year journey providing pet therapy in Arizona's homeless shelters. After a tragic car accident that left her unable to work full-time as a social worker, White began volunteering as a pet therapist with children at a homeless shelter and found that children desperately needed the love and compassion of animals to heal and recover from traumatic events

zzz in their lives over which they had no control. The author discovered that not only did animal therapy assist her with her own recovery, but she was able to assist these young children through their own difficult journeys toward a more stable life.

To summarize, today's youths are facing many critical issues that often require social workers' assistance to resolve. It is important that we keep abreast of the latest information and developments in practice concerning children and adolescents so that we may provide the best available services. Social workers change the lives of young people in a positive direction every day. By preventing one more victim of violence, one more successful suicide, one more disruption in foster care, or one more child from being exposed to domestic violence, we can provide children with the resilience they need today and the hope for a better tomorrow.


Administration for Children and Families. (2009). Foster care FY2002-FY2006 entries, exits, and numbers of children in care on the last day of each federal fiscal year (DHHS Publication). Retrieved from http://www.

Anderson, M. A., Kaufman, J., Simon, T. R., Barrios, L., Paulozzi, L., Ryan, G., et al. (2001). School-associated violent deaths in the United States, 1994-1999. JAMA, 286, 2695-2702.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2002). Youth risk behavior surveillance--United States, 2001. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2007). Trends in the prevalence of suicide--related behaviors: National YRBS: 1991-2007. Retrieved from http:// suicide_related_behaviors_trend.pdf

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2009). Foster care statistics: Numbers and trends. Retrieved from http://

Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., et al. (2005). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35, 390-398.

D'Augelli, A. R., Grossman, A. H., Nicholas, P.,Vasey, J. J., Starks, M.T., & Sinclair, K. O. (2006). Predicting the suicide attempts of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35, 646-660.

Giroux, H. A. (2003). Betraying the intellectual tradition: Public intellectuals and the crisis of youth. Language and Intercultural Communication, 3(3), 172-186.

Puzzanchera, C. (2009, May 28). Juvenile arrests: 2007. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Retrieved from http://www.

UNICEF. (2004). The state of the world's children 2005: Childhood under threat. Retrieved from http://www.

U.S. Department of State. (2005, April 21). The facts about child sex tourism: Fact sheet. Washington, DC: Bureau of Public Affairs. Retrieved from http://nhtrc. pdf

U.S. Department of State. (2008, June 4). Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, Div. A of Pub. L. No. 106-386. Retrieved from tiprpt/2008/105392.htm

Elizabeth C. Pomeroy, PhD, LCSW, ACSW, is professor, and Polly Browning, LCSW, is a doctoral student, School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin. Address correspondence to Elizabeth C. Pomeroy, School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station D 3500, Austin, TX 78712-0358; e-mail:
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Author:Pomeroy, Elizabeth C.; Browning, Polly
Publication:Social Work
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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