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Does moving homes predict who gets to better schools?

Author: Brett Theodos

| Posted: April 22nd, 2014

As we saw in yesterday’s post, kids in low-income neighborhoods frequently change schools, but does that help them get into better-performing schools?

In our newly released study of 10 low-income communities participating in the Making Connections initiative, we found that families who moved out of their school district were more likely to switch to a better-ranked school. In fact, it was the most important variable accounting for changes in school performance.

To begin, it’s important to understand that most children in these low-income neighborhoods initially attended strikingly low-performing schools. More than half the children (51 percent) attended schools ranked in the bottom 20th percentile of their state. Changing to a better-ranked school clearly mattered.

schoolperformance

Three years after the first survey, we examined school ranks for children with a follow-up survey. School ranks remained largely the same, but the statistics mask some important changes for individual children—in both directions.

  • Residential mobility. The most important factor explaining changes in school performance was whether a child moved out of the school district where he or she had previously gone to school. This change was associated with an 8.9 point average improvement in percentile state rank, even when controlling for other factors. Yet children who moved homes within the same school district saw no improvement on average.
  • Parents’ education, employment, and finances. Higher parental education was associated with increases in school rank. And financial distress (defined as difficulty affording food) was significantly associated with children switching to worse-ranked schools. Children with an employed parent did no better than children whose parents were not working, however. And household income and housing tenure were not associated with changes in school performance either.
  • Racial differences. Relative to white children (and controlling for other factors like initial school rank), black and Hispanic children ended up in lower-ranked schools.
  • Age. A child’s age did not predict changes in school rank, nor did whether children made a nonpromotional (e.g. one elementary school to another) or promotional (e.g. elementary school to junior high) change.
  • Parents’ satisfaction with school. Parental dissatisfaction with their kids’ initial schools was not associated with their children getting to higher-ranked schools, even though less satisfied parents were more likely to have children who switched schools.

Previous research on the effect of school and residential moves on educational outcomes is mixed, probably due to heterogeneous national or state samples, with many moves being neutral or positive in terms of school quality. Our study affirms that many residential and school moves in low-income neighborhoods do not generally result in children attending higher-ranked schools and can actually lead to the opposite.

Children of families that move relatively short distances in response to financial distress or household compositional changes frequently move to schools that perform the same or worse. It is only when families move outside the originating school district that we see reliable gains in school rank.

In a final post in this series tomorrow, I explore what these findings mean for place-based initiatives, such as Promise Neighborhoods.

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What would it take to end family homelessness?

Author: Sarah Gillespie

| Posted: April 2nd, 2014

In February, the Obama administration announced a multi-pronged approach to ending family homelessness. But what does “ending” really mean?

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), the working definition is that no family will be without shelter; should homelessness occur, it will be rare and brief. The HEARTH Act, which governs federal homeless emergency assistance programs, specifies that in high-performing communities, average homelessness should be less than 20 days and the share of people who return to homelessness within two years should be less than 5 percent.

According to USICH, the 2013 Point-In-Time Count found 70,960 families (222,197 people) homeless on a night in January, an 8-percent decline since 2010.

Homelessness

Though family homelessness is now declining, it was on the rise just a few years ago. In 2013, families accounted for 36 percent of the homeless population—58 percent of those family members were children. Homelessness damages children’s physical and emotional health, development and education, and undermines family stability. Homeless children are more likely to repeat grades in school compared with children in families receiving housing assistance; homelessness is the reason for foster placement for as many as three in ten foster children; nearly half experience symptoms of anxiety or depression.

To end family homelessness, the Interagency Council’s plan calls for four key strategy areas for federal, state, and local action:

  • A coordinated entry system
  • interventions tailored to the needs of families
  • linkages to local mainstream systems, and
  • A collection of evidence-based practices for this specific population.

When it comes to these four strategy areas, here’s what we know:

Not every family needs the same response when they experience homelessness. The crisis response system should incorporate coordinated interventions tailored to each family. To secure stable housing, a short-term solution may be enough for some families, but others may need a more long-term solution to interrupt the frequent-move, shelter-use cycle.

Yet very few differences exist between families with shorter and longer stays in the shelter system, even when compared with other low-income housed families. These families tend to have relatively low barriers to exiting the shelter system and almost universally do well with respect to their housing outcomes when they exit with housing subsidies, regardless of their length of stay in shelter.

A small number of families (2 to 8 percent of families using the shelter system), however, access shelter on a much higher average, three or more times the average use of other families.  This subset is more likely to have a younger, female head of household and high rates of intensive service use, including involvement with behavioral health and child protective services.  This group of families’ need for intensive services and a permanent housing solution points to the need for a supportive housing intervention within a system of coordinated responses to end family homelessness.

Here’s what we still need to learn:

How can we assess what is “enough” support for homeless families?  We are still trying to understand how interventions such as transitional housing and rapid re-housing outcomes compare in cost to communities.  The HUD Family Options Study is looking at both of these interventions, along with permanent subsidy and usual care.

How can we target families for whom supportive housing is most appropriate? The Urban Institute is conducting a national evaluation of a supportive housing demonstration for families involved in the child welfare system. Building on previous work by Vanderbilt University, this study will address how to prioritize high-need families at the intersection of the homeless and child welfare systems, an empirical question and a focal point of the evaluation which just launched this year.

The number of unsheltered families may be decreasing each year, but to meet the 2020 goal, we need to learn how to help families living in the shelter system successfully exit to permanent housing.

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Boosting pre-K enrollment for children of immigrants

Author: Julia Gelatt and Gina Adams and Sandra Huerta

| Posted: March 25th, 2014

 

 

preK

President Obama’s 2015 budget proposes $750 million in grants to states to expand prekindergarten programs. Research shows that pre-K can set the foundation for academic success, reaching kids in their critical early years. But children of immigrants, who make up about a quarter of children in the United States, enroll at significantly lower rates, on average, than children with US-born parents.

Language barriers, logistical hurdles, and a lack of awareness or comfort with pre-K programs can hold immigrant parents back. What can pre-K programs do to overcome those barriers and step up enrollment?

We talked to pre-K directors and outreach specialists, directors of other early childhood education programs, and early education specialists and compiled some of their best practices and recommendations in our report “Supporting Immigrant Families’ Access to Prekindergarten.” Here are a few of their strategies:

  • Getting the word out: Outreach begins by learning more about the immigrant community—who they are, where they are, whether they’re underserved by early education programs, and what barriers may stand in the way of pre-K enrollment. The experts we interviewed also described reaching out to immigrant families by participating in community events, going door to door, encouraging parents of enrolled children to recruit other parents, and advertising in mass media and at the offices of immigrant-serving nonprofits. State directors can support this work with targeted funding or by developing statewide outreach and advertising materials.
  • Making enrollment easier: Immigrant parents may have trouble providing proof of income or children’s birth certificates and Social Security numbers. In those cases where these documents are necessary for enrollment (and often they’re not), some pre-K programs have accepted other sources—such as hospital records or letters from employers—to fulfill requirements. Creating enrollment forms in different languages, providing interpreters or family outreach workers to help with enrollment, and offering a variety of enrollment times and locations can make it easier for immigrant families to sign up. Statewide, standard enrollment forms, translated into common languages, can help facilitate this process.
  • Developing parent relationships and designing welcoming programs: One of the most common ways that parents learn about available pre-K is through word of mouth, as parents spread the news about quality programs. To get there, programs should build strong relationships with immigrant parents by working with trusted immigrant-serving nonprofits and proactively engaging and including parents in school activities. Some states have built requirements for parent engagement into their pre-K models. It’s also important that programs build capacity for communicating with immigrant parents, whether relying on school district translators or volunteer interpreters (but not using children as go-betweens).

Finally, some programs have found creative ways to overcome logistical hurdles that may disproportionately affect immigrant parents. For example, some use blended funding to operate extended hours, which can particularly help immigrant parents, given that they are more likely to work nonstandard work schedules.

While reaching out to diverse immigrant populations about pre-K, providing enrollment assistance, and building immigrant-friendly programs can be challenging, the people we spoke with made it clear that programs of all sizes and funding levels can work towards increasing immigrant access and participation in prekindergarten. Such efforts are essential to support the academic success of every child.

In this April 5, 2012, photo, pre-school students Molly Kiniry, 4, left, Imani Workcuff, 4, upper right, and Lyvia Pham, 4, lower right, build "castles" with building sticks at the Refugee and Immigrant Family Center in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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Solving the MTO puzzle: Why girls benefit and boys struggle

Author: Susan Popkin

| Posted: March 24th, 2014

 

 

Chicago Shootings Along 79th

If low-income families living in distressed public housing move to higher-income neighborhoods, would that help them move out of poverty? In the 1990’s, HUD’s Moving to Opportunity Demonstration (MTO) began testing the idea by targeting some of the worst public housing communities; these developments were chronically disadvantaged, dangerous places with high crime, drug dealing, and disorder. The hope was that giving families vouchers and help to move to less poor neighborhoods would help parents to access better jobs and children to do better in school.

I’ve been part of the large group of researchers extensively tracking and studying the MTO experiment over the past two decades—and the story that has emerged is far more complex than any of the policy makers who designed the demonstration could have anticipated. Almost all the MTO families who moved ended up in moderately poor, minority neighborhoods, not the resource-rich white suburban communities that planners had envisioned. These urban communities had less crime, but not strong schools or access to jobs and the findings about how the move affected families have been mixed. Recently, Ron Kessler from Harvard and his colleagues released a new analysis in JAMA exploring the most puzzling finding from MTO:  adolescent girls who moved to lower poverty neighborhoods had much better mental health outcomes, but adolescent boys actually fared about the same or even worse than those who stayed in public housing.

While the report offers more insight into exactly how the neighborhood environment affected adolescent mental health, the gender differences in outcomes for MTO adolescents are old findings.  Kessler’s work adds new details, showing that boys who moved experienced higher rates of PTSD and conduct disorders.  But what we need is insight into why girls benefit while boys struggle.

My colleagues and I have been exploring this gender puzzle since the MTO Interim evaluation first documented this difference more than a decade ago. We interviewed more than two hundred families in three of the MTO cities—Boston, New York, and Los Angeles about their experiences. For girls, moving out of distressed public housing meant escaping from “the female fear”—the ever-present threat of sexual harassment, pressure, and violence. Girls who moved talked about being less anxious and having more freedom to move around their neighborhoods.

The story for boys was more complicated; many had trouble forming connections in their new neighborhood and frequently returned to their old housing development. They had conflicts with kids in their new communities and schools who viewed them as outsiders and potential threats. Some hid out in their homes to avoid confrontation, spending their time alone, playing video games and watching TV. Though some of this gender difference may be attributable to differences in social skills, it also reflects the struggles young men of color face in too many communities.

The White House is partnering with philanthropy to improve access to opportunity for young boys and men of color. The findings from MTO underscore the need better understand and solve these challenges. But we cannot disregard the needs of “marginalized girls” still living in distressed communities. Few of them will have the chance to make the moves that helped the MTO girls. To address the needs of adolescent boys and girls in distressed communities, strategies must benefit them both.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

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The realities of intimate partner homicide

Author: Janine Zweig

| Posted: March 14th, 2014

 

 

Oscar Pistorius

Just like OJ Simpson’s 1994 trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, Olympian Oscar Pistorius’ trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp has catapulted intimate partner homicide back into the news. Simpson was acquitted of criminal charges, but was found liable for his former wife’s death in a civil suit. Pistorius’ guilt or innocence remains an unanswered question.

While the unfortunate truth is that husbands and boyfriends kill their partners with disturbing frequency, these cases are the ones that we watch with rapt attention to every trial detail. Our culture is obsessed with falls from grace, especially when it involves a fabled sports hero and his beautiful partner.

Regardless, the problem of a partner killing a loved one is real. And while the overall rate of homicide has declined, the proportion of female homicide victims that are killed by their intimate partners remains stubbornly high.

Women account for almost two-thirds (64 percent) of victims of intimate partner homicide. Among all murder victims, women are six times more likely than men to be killed by a current or former intimate partner.

In the time since Simpson’s trial, intimate partner homicide has increased for female victims, reversing a long trend of decline. Between 1980 and 1995, intimate partner homicide of females declined from 43 percent of female homicide victims to 38 percent. By 2008, the proportion had increased to 45 percent.

In contrast, intimate partner homicide of males declined during that entire period—from 10 percent of male homicide victims to 5 percent.

Adding to the tragic loss of one person, intimate partner violence homicide incidents often include other victims.  In fact, in intimate partner violence-related homicides between 2003 and 2009, 80 percent of victims were the intimate partner being targeted; the other 20 percent who perished at the same time were friends, family members, current partners, police officers, and others. (You may recall that Ronald Goldman died alongside Nicole Brown Simpson.)

Intimate partner homicide feels like an intractable problem, but efforts have been underway to address it for years. And during the National Institute of Justice’s last funding cycle, the organization awarded an evaluation of the Domestic Violence Homicide Prevention Demonstration to learn how well domestic violence homicide reduction and prevention efforts work in a selected group of communities. These efforts focus on identifying victims who are at highest risk for intimate partner homicide and linking them to services, while at the same time implementing better measures to monitor high-risk offenders. The ultimate goal is to find ways to prevent this type of homicide.

For now, the public’s focus on this issue is highlighted when big news stories hit the headlines. But, while the National Institute of Justice project is just lifting off—which means the findings are years away—some of us are anxiously awaiting that news.

Oscar Pistorius is escorted outside court during a recess on the third day of his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, March 5, 2014, Pistorius is charged with murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentines Day in 2013. (AP Photo/Antoine de Ras)

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My brother's keeper: helping young men of color achieve their potential

Author: Margaret Simms

| Posted: February 26th, 2014

 

 

Barack Obama

President Obama plans to announce a new initiative to provide young men of color with “an opportunity to get ahead and reach [their] full potential.” The concept is not totally new. Many programs across the country are already engaged in this work, but a nationally coordinated effort makes it easier to share promising practices, make strategic investments, and emphasize evaluation so we can invest in what works.

While the specifics of the initiative are scheduled to be unveiled at a White House event on February 27th, we already know the effort will feature public-private collaborations and evidence-based projects in areas likely to include education, health, employment, and criminal justice.

All of these are key levers for reducing barriers and opening doors so that these young men can succeed. Some small programs, run by local nonprofits, are already focused on particular leverage points, such as education or employment. Other programs are multi-faceted and serve a large number of boys and young men. A lot of attention is often given to early childhood development because it is widely accepted that early intervention can put children on the path to a bright future. But there are also programs that focus on pre-adolescents, teenagers, young adults, and young fathers.

While there is value in having program diversity in this field, a national initiative can add coordination. Resources are scarce and the problem is large. We maximize our chances of making a significant positive impact on young men’s lives if we test strategies and evaluate their success.

The Urban Institute has completed work on program effectiveness at many of these leverage points and is currently working with several jurisdictions to assess the quantitative and qualitative impact of programs focused on young men and boys of color. One program that we are currently looking at is the CUNY Fatherhood Academy, a project housed at LaGuardia Community College and funded by New York City and the Open Society Foundations. This program is designed to put young fathers on track to a better future by helping them pass the GED, enroll in college, obtain employment, and be a better father to their children. With this two-generation approach, the hope is that the young fathers will not only be able to provide economically for their families, but also to provide the nurturing and support their children need to achieve their own potential.

Because the outcomes we seek are sometimes far in the future, it is critical that we understand the connection between the short-term gains that these programs achieve and the long-term success that is our ultimate objective. This is where a tool like the Social Genome Model can help link programs to long-term outcomes. This is a data-rich model that uses the best research on what determines success in each life stage to figure out how a program that boosts success connects to long-term outcomes. The Urban Institute has been collaborating with the Brookings Institution to refine the model, including adding information that identifies differential impacts by race and gender.

The president’s announcement will be just the beginning of the effort to reduce barriers and provide supports for boys and men of color to achieve their potential. But with the evidence available from research and evaluation, plus ongoing evidence gathering to fine-tune and enhance program initiatives, it will be possible to help individuals get on and stay on the path to success.

Image from APImages.com (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) of President Obama speaking about fatherhood at a Father's Day event. Similar themes motivate and will in part define Obama's new initiative aimed at helping young men of color overcome barriers to success.

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The cost of keeping prisoners hundreds of miles from home

Author: Nancy La Vigne

| Posted: February 3rd, 2014

 

 

prisons

The hardships of incarceration are undeniable, but prisoners are not the only ones who suffer. What about the burdens to families when loved ones are behind bars?

In our interviews with family members of the incarcerated, many shared common challenges that strain both their resources and relationships. Chief among them is the distance from prison to home, which three in five family members reported as an obstacle to staying in touch, followed by lack of transportation.

It stands to reason that the greater the distance from home, the greater the challenge to sustaining relationships with family. Even regardless of distance, the trip to visit a family member can be grueling. Families may travel for miles by bus only to discover that the prison is on lockdown and visitors are prohibited. Mothers may sit in crowded, unfriendly waiting areas with hungry, fidgety toddlers sometimes for hours, just to spend an hour or so with a loved one.

For state prisoners, the distance from home varies depending on the state’s size and its correctional policies, but averages about 100 miles. Not so in the federal prison system, where the average inmate is incarcerated 500 miles from home—by car, that’s a good 14 hours or more roundtrip. Add the cost of an overnight stay, transportation, food, and time off from work and you’re looking at a hefty tab for just one visit. What’s more, on average, those with longer sentences are housed further away from home, making for lengthier travel times and greater gaps between visits.

Is this really a matter for public policy?

Not surprisingly, our research shows that in-prison contact with family members leads to closer family relationships following release, which can help smooth the transition to post-prison life. Maintaining connections with their children encourages parents to get their lives on track after returning home, yielding major benefits. Exiting prisoners with strong, positive relationships with their children tend to hold legal employment longer than those who don’t.

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) understands the importance of this issue and recently agreed to allow federal inmates from the District of Columbia to serve the final six months of their sentences in their local jail. The BOP also held its first-ever Universal Children’s Day a few months ago, a weekend event with both parenting workshops and kid-friendly activities like storytelling and face-painting.

The BOP could hold more family visitation events like this, but it can also revise routine policies to make it easier and more affordable for families stay in touch year-round. Lowering the cost of phone calls and enhancing secure email and video conference capabilities would help inmates maintain ties with family members. The BOP could also send text alerts to family members when facilities are on lockdown to minimize a potential travel burden with no pay-off.

Let’s face it: this is a big country, and it’s not going to be easy for the federal prison system to house every inmate close to his or her home. But it should do what it can to keep families together, which in turn can save them money, preserving both resources and relationships that will help former prisoners live better lives on the outside.

Photo from Bureau of Prisons website

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The Super Bowl and human trafficking: What we know, and what we don't

Author: Colleen Owens

| Posted: January 31st, 2014

 

 

superbowlMetLifeStadium

 

As you prepare for this weekend’s  Super Bowl XLVIII by setting out snacks and drinks, law enforcement in host city East Rutherford, New Jersey are “redoubl[ing] efforts to fight what they worry could be one of the [event’s] biggest menaces...sex trafficking.”

Our most reliable estimate suggests that globally 4.5 million men, women and children are sex trafficking victims.

It’s important to distinguish sex trafficking from prostitution and sex work generally. If the sex act is induced through the use of force, fraud or coercion, it is sex trafficking. A minor induced to perform a sex act in exchange for something of value (money, food, shelter, clothing) is automatically considered a sex trafficking victim. Since minors cannot legally grant consent, proving force, fraud or coercion is not necessary.

That means sex trafficking does not require geographic movement, and it manifests in multiple forms across the United States– from immigrant women forced into sexual service paying off smuggling debts to runaway U.S. citizen minors advertised online by pimps/traffickers. The words we use to describe the crime of human trafficking are new, but the acts constituting the crime are not.

Sex trafficking and the Super Bowl

Some dismiss Super Bowl-surge reports as fear mongering, stating that “there's no evidence that a mass influx of sports fans increases the [trafficking] problem or contributes to it in some way." However, this claim is too simplistic. The fact is, we don't know enough to say.

Although it’s been almost 14 years since the federal anti-trafficking law passed, systematic data collection on human trafficking incidents and investigations has only recently begun. And we still lack a nationwide data collection system that would tell us what happens to cases once they are referred for local or state prosecution. Outside of federally-funded service provision organizations, data is not consistently collected on the number of trafficked individuals receiving services.

To be clear, an absence of data does not mean an absence of trafficking. It exists in our communities, and research suggests it is far more prevalent than official statistics would have us believe. Here is what we do know:

  1. Human trafficking is not just sex trafficking.
  2. If New Jersey, or any community, wants to address the full scope of trafficking, resources must also be directed to combat forced labor. Super Bowl fans may be surprised to know that the people cleaning their hotel rooms, serving meals at restaurants, or driving taxis to and from the game could be victims of labor trafficking. This means  violence, threats, and other forms of force, fraud, or coercion are being used to keep them working. Loopholes in the civil and criminal justice system and an overall lack of enforcement mean that these abuses can go unseen and unpunished.

  3. Most local law enforcement do not proactively go after human trafficking. 
  4. It’s encouraging that officials in East Rutherford are actively looking for potential victims, because our research with Northeastern University found that law enforcement’s approach was generally to wait for tips to come in. However, we found that for a host of reasons individuals rarely self-identified as human trafficking victims and reported to police in only 10% of cases. Not proactively policing for trafficking guarantees that cases will be under-identified.

  5. Human trafficking laws are not being enforced.
  6. According to our research, once human trafficking cases are identified and referred to prosecution, very few are prosecuted with existing human trafficking laws. Instead, cases may be dismissed or prosecuted with lesser crimes— like pandering, promoting prostitution, or alien harboring— hiding the prevalence of human trafficking from the public, and sending a message to victims and offenders that these cases are not serious. Communities should create prosecution performance metrics and make the data publicly available, so prosecution practices are evidence-based and law enforcement are held accountable.

  7. Task forces work.  
  8. New Jersey’s Attorney General has reportedly convened a Super Bowl task force, and officials have been working to educate the public on the signs of trafficking. Our data show that task forces and training are effective when it comes to increasing the number of child sex trafficking cases moving through the criminal justice system.  But further research needs to explore the impact of different task force models and training on all forms of human trafficking.

It’s worth exploring  anecdotal accounts we’ve heard from convicted sex traffickers that they both target major events, but also try to avoid cities with increased enforcement. In future years, it’s possible that data will be robust enough to determine whether the alleged surge in trafficking around the Super Bowl is real. But for now, the same political will to investigate sex trafficking at the Super Bowl is needed to investigate all forms of human trafficking year-round across the country, as are the resources to accurately track and measure the problem.

With this level of support and leadership, the numbers of victims and offenders would certainly increase—and that’s a good thing. First responders, local and federal law enforcement, and service providers would have the resources they need to support the identification of victims and hold offenders accountable. Communities would be educated about the signs of trafficking, and could help ensure that laws are enforced and victims are connected with specialized services.

What we do know for sure is that human trafficking is a year-round phenomenon across our country –the political will to proactively look for it is not. Let’s hope New Jersey’s efforts signify a change in how we combat human trafficking, and that New Jersey and other communities will adopt year-round, comprehensive, and grounded-in-evidence strategies.

Image from Flickr user picturesofyou (CC BY 2.0)

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The risks girls in disadvantaged communities face—and how to keep them safer

Author: Susan Popkin

| Posted: January 30th, 2014

 

 

doll

Last year, the New York Times movingly documented the life of a young girl named Dasani who was growing up in a homeless shelter, forced to live in one crowded room with her entire family.

Dasani’s mother and her boyfriend were recovering drug addicts, and the family didn’t have enough food, diapers, or even privacy. Dasani and her siblings were exposed daily to violence and ugly behavior from the adults around them. Without an effective parent to help buffer the toxic stress, the children were showing signs of anxiety and trauma; Dasani’s teachers noted behavior problems and even suspended her for attacking another child.

Dasani’s story illustrates the toll that trauma takes on young children. And, as we’ve found over and over in our work in distressed public housing communities, girls face unique gender-based risks.

Girls in chronically disadvantaged communities—racially and economically isolated neighborhoods, with high rates of violent crime, unemployment, and family violence—face an environment rife with sexual pressures and norms that place them at risk. Even very young girls are harassed and pressured for sex, labeled “hos” if they give in, cold if they don’t.

Our recent survey of families in public housing in DC showed widespread agreement with statements that girls are to blame if they are sexually assaulted or harassed. Girls in our focus group told of being afraid of retaliation if they didn’t respond to men’s and boys’ comments. Because these pressures are so much a part of daily life, girls don’t expect anyone to help them, adding to their sense of powerlessness.

Although mothers in these communities often try to protect their daughters by keeping them inside, girls are often unsafe even at home. Domestic violence and abuse are widespread, with nearly half of the women we surveyed reported being hurt by an intimate partner (surely an underestimate).

Girls also face the very real risk of being expected to offer sexual favors for money or safety—or of being trafficked to make money for a dealer or pimp. In this environment, harassment, abuse, sexual assault, and the oversexualization of young girls all become “normal,” but are still extremely traumatizing. And girls are at particular risk of being abused and sexually exploited by people they know and love—family members, boyfriends, and even pimps who offer them a sense of protection and belonging.

The costs of this chronic trauma for girls are profound—depression, STIs, physical illness, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, school failure, and teen parenthood. Trauma may drive girls to drop out of school, leaving them facing a lifetime of poverty, diminished self-efficacy, and stunted life chances. Girls who run away or are sexually exploited risk being incarcerated, where they often receive no help for their trauma. Some girls, like Dasani, act out and become violent themselves. Some cities and states are beginning to try new approaches, including referring sexually exploited youth to child welfare instead of sending them to jail.

We are working with the DC public housing community to develop a program for teens to help mitigate the prevalent sexual harassment and pressure. It's a public health approach to improving the outcomes for girls growing up in chronic disadvantage. But while we hope this program will help, there is a critical need for mental health services and other supports to address the trauma girls face.  And there is a critical need to elevate this issue and begin a meaningful policy discussion about how to help reduce the gender-based risks facing low-income women and girls and help improve their life chances—and those of their children.

Follow Sue Popkin on Twitter at @SJPopkin.

Image from Flickr user Elliot Moore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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