Taking Care of Kids Who Witness Death

Normally, small research studies don’t interest me much since they usually don’t include a large cross-section of participants. I mean, how can you reach a generalized conclusion if you have only questioned or studied 20 or 30 people, right?

But a newly reported effort from the Boston Reentry Study group caught my attention. During a project that spanned more than a year, departing prison inmates were asked all sorts of questions. The one that caught my attention focused on the inmates’ childhood: “Did you ever see someone get killed during that time?”

A stunning forty-two percent of the 122 male and female participants said “Yes,” as a child they had witnessed someone be killed. Some had seen deadly violence more than once.  And a majority received no trauma or mental health counseling after the horrifying event.

Think about the lasting effect of a child witnessing a death – a murder, suicide or fatal accident.  The idea of children being exposed to such a traumatic event, and then having to mentally sort it all out alone, is chilling.

It begs the question:  did the inmate’s childhood trauma, and the lack of any meaningful therapy to help them deal with it, somehow put them on a path to prison?

There have been numerous studies over the years which conclude a child’s exposure to violence can have a profound and lasting effect. It can impact their physical and mental health and their future accomplishments in school and at work. What is unique about the Boston Reentry Study is that it is one of the first to focus specifically on the link between childhood exposure to violent death and possible future incarceration. The  conclusion seems to be yes, there is a connection.

Prisoners are often from minority groups, had troubled childhoods and likely lived at or below the poverty level. Along with the 42% of convicts in the Boston study who said they had witnessed a death, half also said they had been seriously physically abused by a parent. A third said they had witnessed domestic abuse at home.

Take the case of Peter. He told researchers that when he was 12 he saw a man stabbed to death in a brawl outside a bar. Later Peter was imprisoned after a series of stabbing assaults. Once behind bars the violence continued. Like many of the departing inmates Peter told researchers he had witnessed multiple violent assaults while incarcerated, both convict-on-convict and between convict and prison guards.

As one respondent put it, the violence he regularly witnessed as a child “seemed normal.” That he would continue the pattern later in life was no surprise.

An inmate named Patrick was also extensively interviewed along with his family members. Beginning at age five, Patrick was regularly beaten by his heroin addicted mother’s boyfriends. His aunt told researchers the boy was raised by grandparents in “a crazy house, between my brothers coming in either beat up or having had some terrible car accident … or someone falling asleep with a cigarette and a mattress going up on fire. It was a very traumatic house to live in.” Patrick witnessed his uncle stab a man and he helped him steal a car.

There were fewer female convicts in the study but almost every one of them reported being a victim of sexual violence as a child.

One of the saddest parts of this study was how these struggling children were shunted aside. Eighty-one percent had been suspended or expelled from school after acting out, some as early as elementary school. Few were offered any support services. No counseling for family dysfunction, behavioral, drug or learning problems. Eventually, 60% dropped out before high school graduation.

The parents of these uncared for children should have done better by them but they didn’t. So then, what is society’s responsibility to these kids?

Harvard Professor Bruce Western, author of “Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison” and a researcher with the Boston group believes the criminal justice system is lopsided and consistently favors affluent and middle-class kids. When they use drugs, destroy property, assault others and go before a judge they are often given an alternative to prison. “The justice system…looks to the potential of that middle-class kind and shows mercy and leniency,” Western said.

He believes if judges took a similar tact with poor kids and looked to their human potential, “I think, (that’s) a way out of the problem of mass incarceration.”

It’s clear, those who are victimized in childhood often become offenders as adults. It just makes common sense to fund schools so that instead of expelling problem children we  help rescue them with tutoring, life-choice counseling and maybe even mental health referrals.  Why don’t we focus on that? What are we waiting for?

I wonder when it will seep into our societal psyche that when we help put children on the right path it helps all of us. And the result is sure to reduce our prison population.




  1. Diane Dimond on June 20, 2018 at 11:30 am

    Twitter Pal Sharon@2bluwhite writes:

    My niece saw her mother killed, and she is NOT a killer….. please stop with this…..☮

    • Diane Dimond on June 20, 2018 at 11:31 am

      DD replies:

      I’m betting your niece got some couselling…& doesn’t live in poverty or with gang/druggie/criminals. There are many factors that put a child on a path to prison. My sincere well wishes for the mental health of your niece. ~DD

      • Diane Dimond on June 20, 2018 at 11:43 am

        Sharon@2bluwhite replies:

        No Diane, fortunately she didn’t have any of those elements.

  2. Diane Dimond on June 20, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Creators Syndicate Reader Benebeth writes:

    I have said for decades that the inner cities need to clean up their act because their youth deserve better. Sure kids are expelled but more quit. They can make money selling drugs on the street and that is what they do.
    Most families have one parent, daddy was just a sperm donor. They need to get their bodies back in church on Sunday and drag junior kicking and screaming if need be. Far too many have no idea what is right and what is wrong.
    Just this week I read a story about a seventeen year old boy stealing a car and the owner shot him dead but the sister is out and saying that was wrong. Her brother shouldn’t have been shot at because she just doesn’t get it.

    • Gene on February 17, 2022 at 8:45 am

      I am 74 years old and witnessed my little brother be run over by a city employee in 1955 with a steam roller, thats correct witnessed it!
      I received NO HELP, COUNSELING and have had the most scary, horrible, threatening, hunted like a dog in my head life.
      Its great to talk about it, but no one did anything.
      Now they want to take my social security!!! gues where im headed at 74?

  3. Ruth Henriquez on April 19, 2023 at 8:19 pm

    Thank you for this column. There is very little information available for adults who witnessed deadly violence as a child, unless one is looking at domestic violence resources. Your article is a helpful start, even though it scratches the surface. I hope you will develop this theme further in later pieces.

    I believe you that many children who witness violence go on to commit violent acts, but that is not always the case — as I am sure you know. People cope in different ways.

    One of the worst parts of going through that sort of trauma is that there are very few people you can talk to about it throughout your lifespan. People judge you as tainted and defective if they find out what you’ve been through, and they are frightened by the “otherness” you stand for. The loneliness of living with the ever-present memories is very heavy to bear.

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