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What Are the Causes of Youth Violence?

And why are so many young people the victims of violence?

Aug. 10, 2011
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Why have Milwaukee's young people been engaged in violence this summer?

The specific causes of the fights at the Wisconsin State Fair last week and in Riverwest in July may never be fully known, even though they're being endlessly analyzed in local media.

But more reliable, long-term and less politically tinged answers can be found in the research done by the Medical College of Wisconsin's Youth Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI), which has been investigating the contributing causes and impact of youth violence in Milwaukee—as well as potential solutions.

Staci Young, senior faculty director for the VPI, said that it's too early to make conclusions about the causes of the fights at the State Fair, since all of the facts have yet to come out. And even if the complete facts about the fights are released, Young said the underlying causes of violent behavior aren't easily identified.

“You can't necessarily ascribe a set of root factors or behaviors to an event,” Young said.

Ramon Candelaria, the community director for VPI, said the parents and community must teach children about the pitfalls of violent behavior.

“One of the ways we can come after it is the same way we get into it—teach it and learn it,” Candelaria said. “Teach it very young so that later in life, five or 10 years from now, we're seeing some impact.”

Children: Victims of Homicide and Assault

Although the causes of the State Fair fights aren't yet known, VPI's most recent report sheds light on the impact of violence on Milwaukee's young people, both as victims and perpetrators. Looking at data collected from official sources, VPI researchers found:

  • Young people comprise a surprising number of homicide victims. The city of Milwaukee had 94 homicides in 2010; 35% of the victims were age 24 or younger. Three-fourths of the victims 24 or younger were African American. “Firearms were the weapon used in most homicides, particularly where victims were 12 years and older,” the report found.
  • Child victims of homicide—those under 18 years of age—are most likely to have been killed in the home by a caregiver.
  • According to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, there were 400 non-fatal shootings in Milwaukee in 2010. The majority of the victims—56%, or 223 victims—were 24 years old or younger. The vast majority of these victims—82%—were African American.
  • In 2009, Milwaukee residents 24 and younger accounted for more than 2,500 emergency room or hospital admissions for assault-related injuries. In addition to the personal cost of these assaults, the total medical cost in the city that year was $9.9 million.
  • Milwaukee County children are more likely to be referred to Child Protective Services (CPS) for maltreatment than children in other parts of the state. In 2009, Milwaukee County had 47.9 per 1,000 children reported to CPS; statewide, there were 29 per 1,000 children reported to CPS.
  • Seven of 10 sexual assaults reported to the Milwaukee Police Department in 2009 involved victims under age 18. “The actual number of incidents is likely higher, as victimization is underreported,” the study noted.

Risk Factors and Preventive Factors

Why do young people resort to violence? VPI's Young cautioned against drawing up a profile of a violent youth, since risk factors can be overcome through positive parenting or mentoring, education, community support and personal responsibility.

That said, there are some contributing factors that predispose someone to being violent, as well as ways to reduce those risk factors. For example, victims of child abuse are more likely to show violent behaviors when they're older. That could be lessened through child maltreatment prevention education. Unfortunately, Milwaukee County spends far less per child on prevention programs, compared to the statewide average, according to data collected in the VPI report.

Being born premature can also put someone at risk of becoming violent. Milwaukee has the highest rate of premature births among large cities in the state. The rate of premature births can be lessened through better prenatal care and reducing physical injury during pregnancy.

Kids born to teen mothers are also more likely to have behavioral problems, including incarceration as a minor. In 2008, the birth rate for Milwaukee County teens was 62.9 per 1,000 live births, twice the statewide average.

Other risk factors include lead poisoning, poverty, low academic achievement, low intelligence and deteriorating neighborhoods with vacant buildings, vandalism and litter.

On the other hand, VPI's Young said that safe places for children—schools or community centers—as well as positive relationships can help prevent a child from becoming violent.

Young said the report's data can help community leaders develop and continue to support programs to reduce long-term risk factors, such as premature births, that they'd otherwise not connect to youth violence.

“It forces us to look as a community at these pieces and realize that they potentially have longer-term implications,” Young said.


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