Article  |  Victimization

Child and Youth Exposure to Violence in Illinois

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A substantial number of children and adolescents are exposed to violence in their homes, schools, and communities.[1] Unaddressed trauma resulting from these experiences can contribute to a host of mental, physical, and developmental consequences for children and adolescents and negatively impact families and communities. Accessing needed services that are comprehensive and timely, however, is often difficult for families, particularly as they attempt to navigate multiple, disparate systems of care.

Child and Youth Victimization and Exposure to Violence in Illinois

Children and youth can experience multiple forms of violence across their homes, schools, and community, including child abuse and neglect, child sexual abuse, community violence, exposure to domestic violence, and bullying, among others.[2] Presented here is a high-level overview of data available about various forms of childhood victimization and exposure to violence.

While sophisticated analyses considering regional, community size and composition, racial, ethnic, age, and other factors are necessary to fully understand childhood victimization and exposure in Illinois, data to conduct such analyses are not publicly available.

Child Abuse/Neglect and Sexual Abuse

In a national study on child health, researchers estimated 40 percent of children in Illinois between the ages of 0-17 have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, such as child abuse/neglect and exposure to domestic violence.[3]

A 2016 victim needs assessment conducted in Illinois showed that of those who reported they had ever been a victim of a crime (N= 815), 20 percent had experienced physical child abuse and 20 percent had experienced child sexual abuse.[4] Eight percent of victims had experienced both physical and sexual child abuse. Participants also were asked to identify the victimization that impacted them the most. Of victims who had experienced child physical abuse, 31 percent selected this experience as the one that impacted them the most and of those who had experienced child sexual abuse, 58 percent selected this experience. When looking at individuals who had experienced both child physical and sexual abuse in their lifetimes (8 percent of total victim sample), 14 percent selected child physical abuse and 49 percent selected child sexual abuse as the most impactful experience.

Data maintained by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) indicated there were 120,828 reports of child abuse and neglect (25 percent of which were indicated) and 7,743 reports of child sexual abuse (25 percent of which were indicated) in 2017. Analysis of trends over time showed a consistent rate of reported child abuse/neglect in Illinois until 2016, when both child abuse and neglect and child sexual abuse reporting increased by 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively (Figure 1). The increases may be due to a shift in reporting or changes in policy or practice in how reports are counted, which have been noted elsewhere.[5] However without further data, researchers are not able to make conclusions about the reasons for these increases. Despite the increases, these figures likely underestimate the prevalence of child abuse in Illinois, as research suggests these crimes are often underreported and difficult to substantiate.[6]

Figure 1

Statewide Rates of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect and Child Sexual Abuse

The most recent data available on the characteristics of children and youth whose cases were indicated as abuse or neglect were obtained from the DCFS State Fiscal Year 2015 Annual Report.[7] Indicated cases were examined here because those represent incidents in which child welfare investigators had enough evidence to confirm abuse or neglect occurred. There were 109,184 reports of child abuse and neglect (23% of which were indicated) and 7,426 reports of child sexual abuse (28% of which were indicated) to DCFS in 2015.[8] The data indicated notable age and gender differences by abuse type. Almost half (48 percent) of indicated cases of child abuse and neglect involved children under 5 years of age, while 64 percent of indicated child sexual abuse cases involved youth 10 to 17 years of age. In addition, 50 percent of indicated child abuse and neglect involved female victims and 49 percent involved male victims, generally reflecting the female-male distribution in the general population. Females, however, accounted for a much higher percentage of victims of indicated child sexual abuse than males, at 83 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Slight differences also were noted by race and ethnicity. Whites accounted for the largest percentage of child abuse and neglect and sexual abuse victims (at 52 percent and 57 percent, respectively), followed by Blacks (at 35 percent and 24 percent, respectively), and Hispanics (at 10 percent and 15 percent, respectively). When compared to their representation in the general population, Blacks were overrepresented among both indicated child abuse and neglect and child sexual abuse cases. The percentages of White and Hispanic children who have been victimized were less than their representation in the population.

While these data account for cases covered by DCFS, child advocacy centers (CACs) in Illinois respond to some DCFS cases in addition to cases referred through law enforcement agencies or other service providers. In 2015, almost 10,936 children were served by a CAC in Illinois. Of those, 9,532 (87 percent) were sexual abuse cases, which is more than the number of sexual abuse incidents reported to DCFS in 2015. While researchers were unable to separate clients referred by DCFS from information about all clients served by a CAC in Illinois, the demographics of children served were similar for race and ethnicity, but different in regard to age and gender. CACs served more females (70 percent) than males and a higher percentage of children ages 7 to 12 (37 percent) and 13 to 17 (32 percent) than younger children, which is likely due to the high volume of sexual abuse cases handled by these centers.[9] More information is needed to explore whether these differences are due to prevalence, help-seeking, or referral practices. It may be that these cases have a higher potential of evidence or are more severe and thus are prioritized for services or investigation.

Community Violence

In addition to child abuse and neglect, children and youth are exposed to other types of violence in their home, schools, and communities.[10] This includes murder, gun violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, robbery, and aggravated or simple assault. Although no single source of data on community violence exists in Illinois, violent index crime data reported to the Illinois State Police (ISP) as part of the state’s Uniform Crime Reporting program is one measure. According to this source, there were 54,720 reports of violent index crimes in 2016, most of which were aggravated assaults (57%) or robberies (32%).

Homicide. Homicide is of particular concern given its frequency in Chicago and across the state. There were 747 murders in Illinois in 2015 and 1,041 murders in 2016. Murder totals, however, underrepresent the true impact of this type of violence as the number of individuals affected is exponentially larger. Research estimates the number of surviving friends and family members of a single murder victim range from as low as three to as many as 10.[11] Using a conservative estimate (three), this would mean that there were 3,123 surviving family members or loved ones impacted by murder in Illinois in 2016. When considering the total number of murders over the last 10 years, the number jumps to 23,613 individuals.

Domestic violence and sexual assault. Illinois has two distinct sources of victimization data for domestic violence and sexual assault: law enforcement reporting and InfoNet. Law enforcement agencies report domestic-related offenses and sexual assault victimization to ISP as part of the state’s crime reporting program. According to ISP data, about 118,160 domestic offenses and about 4,765 sexual assaults were reported to law enforcement in 2016. Totals have been consistent over the last few years, with minor increases and decreases noted.

InfoNet is the state’s central repository for domestic violence and sexual assault victim service data. In 2017, domestic violence agencies who use InfoNet served 42,531 adult victims. InfoNet data showed about 77 percent of these victims were parents with more than 68,000 minor children. Of those children, 7,871 received services from a domestic violence service provider. Additionally, InfoNet showed Illinois rape crisis centers served 2,378 youth victims aged 12 to 17 years and 5,950 adults in 2017. Additionally, these agencies provided services to 1,069 significant others who were secondary victims to their loved one’s sexual assault.

Bullying. A statewide survey of junior high and high school youth in Illinois found that 38 percent of students had been bullied, and 13 percent of them were what was classified as “intensely bullied” (i.e., reported was all types of bullying: name calling, threats, physical, or online).[12] Additionally, a national study of youth risk behaviors conducted by the Center for Disease Control found that 21 percent of Illinois high school students stated they had been bullied on school property and 17 percent had been electronically bullied.[13]

Impact of Violence and Victimization on Children, Youth, and Families

The impact of victimization and violence exposure on children and youth has been well-documented. Children may experience PTSD, depression, and anxiety following direct victimization.[14] Child abuse, whether physical or sexual, and the associated psychological stress can cause severe physical symptoms, such as irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease;[15] negatively impact healthy development, including personality development and decrease academic achievement;[16] and increase risk for future victimization.[17]

Although less commonly recognized, exposure to community violence, which includes domestic violence, exposure to violence, and bullying, also can result in serious long-term negative outcomes for children and youth. Community violence often is unpredictable and experiencing or witnessing violence in one’s community can increase fear, distrust, and feelings that communities, homes, and schools are unsafe. Similar to experiencing direct victimization, exposure to violence is associated with decreases in educational achievement;[18] increases in internalizing behaviors (anxiety disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]), externalizing behaviors (oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder), and trauma symptomology;[19] feelings of anger and blame; and heightened risk for future exposure to violence.[20]

Across types of crime, experiencing victimization at a young age increases an individual’s risk of future violence. Childhood experiences of violence contribute to victimization in later years including, but not limited to, domestic violence, kidnapping, sexual assault, theft, and property damage.[21] Child sexual abuse is a risk factor for experiencing sexual victimization in adulthood[22] and victims of teen dating violence, a form of intimate partner violence (IPV), are more likely to experience IPV in adulthood.[23]

Research into the experiences of children and youth victims of violence has shown that for some young people who have been exposed to multiple types of violence, the impacts are much greater. Individuals who experience multiple types of crime across multiple settings (e.g., home, school, community), also known as poly-victims, are more likely to experience severe mental health symptoms than victims with fewer experiences or who only experience one type of crime.[24] Experiencing multiple forms of violence during one’s lifetime is related to higher levels of distress,[25] increased anger and suicidal behavior,[26] and difficulties with life transitions.[27] Children and youth who experience the highest rates of victimization (top 10 percent) are also those who have higher levels of distress and other stressful life events, such as family unemployment and illnesses.[28] Research suggests that children and youths exposure to violence often spikes at key points of transition in their lives, such as transitions from elementary, middle school, and high school.[29]

Beyond the individual victim, violence can also negatively impact the family system and exacerbate or be exacerbated by other life circumstances, including lack of employment or economic opportunities.[30] Violence can increase parental and family stress and conflict, further impacting the long-term well-being and adjustment of children and youth. Adolescent males may be particularly vulnerable to violence when family support declines.[31] Adults also may experience negative outcomes as a result of experiencing violence, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD, which can impact the family system.

Implications for Policy and Practice

The following policies and practices may encourage the funding for and implementation of holistic responses to childhood victimization and exposure to violence.

Offer services that address childhood victimization that include those geared toward families and caregivers. Childhood victimization and exposure to violence impacts both the direct victim and their family system. Family members and non-offending caregivers may be in need of support services to assist the child in receiving care or may be in need of counseling to facilitate family healing. Funding is needed to support the holistic needs of children, including the needs of those who are their primary supports.

Implement prevention and intervention programming during key transition points in the lives of children. Research suggests that experiences of violence increase at school transition points and programming should consider how to engage children both in prevention and in support services at these pivotal time periods.

Equip and train individuals and systems who regularly interact with children to understand responses to trauma and how to ask about victimization. The mental health impacts of violence for children can contribute to internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Shifts in the behavior or academic progress of children should be viewed through a holistic lens that includes considering victimization and exposure to violence. Individuals and systems that regularly interact with children, such as school personnel, community center staff, pediatricians, should be trained to understand how violence can contribute to such changes in behavior and be equipped to screen for victimization in order to connect children to services.

Explore responses to children that engage multiple systems to better support child victims and their families. Violence can impact multiple areas of life that can influence how a child or their family interacts with various systems. These systems may include healthcare, education, child welfare, courts, community, or family. Children and their families should be supported to navigate these systems as they seek the services they need to pursue justice and healing. Strong program models exist for specific types of violence, such as Child Advocacy Center responses to cases of sexual abuse. Further exploration is needed for how these coordinated, multisystem responses can expand to other forms of violence or to victims who have experienced multiple forms of violence.

Research and explore the types of programs that address complex trauma cases and the compounding experiences of violence and victimization. Poly-victimization often occurs across settings and over an extended period of time. Children who are poly-victims experience more severe symptoms than children with fewer experiences. Further funding for research and evaluation is needed to understand what program models address the needs of children who are poly-victims.

This project was supported by Grants #2016-VA-GX-0027, #2017-VA-GX-0048, and #2017-VF-GX-K002 awarded to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs’ Office for Victims of Crime. Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.


  1. Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Shattuck, A., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2015). Children’s exposure to violence, crime, and abuse: An update. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. ↩︎

  2. Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Shattuck, A., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2015). Children’s exposure to violence, crime, and abuse: An update. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. ↩︎

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). National survey of children’s health. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/nsch.html ↩︎

  4. See Aeffect, Inc. (2017). 2016 Victim Needs Assessment. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. Retrieved from
    http://www.icjia.state.il.us/assets/articles/2016_ICJIA_Victim_Needs_Assessment_Summary_Report.pdf ↩︎

  5. See Contreras, D. (April 17, 2018). DCFS releases report after 9 month delay, lawmakers demand transparency. National Public Radio Illinois. Retrieved from http://www.nprillinois.org/post/dcfs-releases-report-after-9-month-delay-lawmakers-demand-transparency#stream/0 ↩︎

  6. Diderich, H. M., Verkerk, P. H., Oudesluys-Murphy, A. M., Dechesne, M., Buitendijk, S. E., & Fekkes, M. (2015). Missed cases in the detection of child abuse based on parental characteristics in the emergency department. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 41, 65-68; Lynne, E. G., Gifford, E. J., Evans, K. E., & Rosch, J. B. (2015). Barriers to reporting child maltreatment: Do emergency medical services professionals fully understand their role as mandatory reporters?. North Carolina Medical Journal, 76, 13-18. ↩︎

  7. Reports and statistics from DCFS are available on their website: https://www.illinois.gov/dcfs/aboutus/newsandreports/reports/Pages/default.aspx. ↩︎

  8. Reports and statistics from DCFS are available on their website: https://www2.illinois.gov/dcfs/aboutus/newsandreports/Documents/ExecStat.pdf ↩︎

  9. The DCFS Annual Report indicates that females and youth between the ages of 10 and 17 account for a much higher percentage of sexual abuse cases than males and younger youth. This difference likely explains the differences in youth served by DCFS and those served through CACs, given that the CACs served more sexual abuse cases than other forms of child abuse. ↩︎

  10. Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Shattuck, A., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2015). Children’s exposure to violence, crime, and abuse: An update. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. ↩︎

  11. Ahmed, F.E., & Feldman, M. (1999). Survivors for violence prevention: National policy report. Unpublished Manuscript. Boston, MA: Harvard School of Public Health, Division of Public Health Practice; Redmond, L. M. (1989). Surviving: When someone you love was murdered. Clearwater, FL: Psychological Consultation and Educational Services Inc. ↩︎

  12. Illinois Department of Human Services. (2014). Illinois Youth Survey. Retrieved from https://iys.cprd.illinois.edu/results/state ↩︎

  13. Center for Disease Control. (2017). Youth Risky Behaviors Survey. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/results.htm ↩︎

  14. Office for Victims of Crime. (2012). Child abuse and neglect. Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center. Retrieved from https://www.ovcttac.gov/downloads/views/TrainingMaterials/NVAA/Documents_NVAA2011/ResourcePapers/Color_Child Abuse Resource paper 2012_final - 508c_9_13_2012.pdf. ↩︎

  15. Nemeroff, 2016. Paradise lost: the neurobiological and clinical consequences of child abuse and neglect. Neuron, 89(5), 892-909. ↩︎

  16. Finkelhor, D., and Hashima,P. (2001). The victimization of children & youth: A comprehensive overview. In S.O. White (Ed.), Law and Social Science Perspectives on Youth and Justice, 49-78. ↩︎

  17. Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. (2015). Prevalence of childhood exposure to violence, crime, and abuse. JAMA Pediatrics, 169(8), 746-754. ↩︎

  18. Milam, A. J., Furr-Holden, C. D. M., & Leaf, P. J. (2010). Perceived school and neighborhood safety, neighborhood violence and academic achievement in urban school children. The Urban Review, 42(5), 458-467. ↩︎

  19. Cecil, C. A., Viding, E., Barker, E. D., Guiney, J., & McCrory, E. J. (2014). Double disadvantage: The influence of childhood maltreatment and community violence exposure on adolescent mental health. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(7), 839-848. DOI 10.1111/jcpp.12213 ↩︎

  20. Connolly, J., & Gordon, R. (2015). Co-victims of homicide: A systematic review of the literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 16, 494-505. ↩︎

  21. Messman-Moore & Long, 2000; Olgoff, Cutajar, Mann, & Mullen 2012; Wisdom, Czaja, & Dutton 2008 ↩︎

  22. Classen, C. C., Palesh, O. G., & Aggarwal, R. (2005). Sexual re-victimization: A review of empirical literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 6(2), 103-129. ↩︎

  23. Jouriles, E. N., Choi, H. J., Rancher, C., & Temple, J. R. (2017). Teen dating violence victimization, trauma symptoms, and revictimization in early adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61(1), 115-119. ↩︎

  24. Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R.K. & Turner, H.A.(2010). Poly-victimization in a national sample of children & youth. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 38(3): 323-330. ↩︎

  25. Richmond, J. M., Elliott, A. N., Pierce, T. W., Aspelmeier, J. E., & Alexander, A. A. (2009). Polyvictimization, childhood victimization, and psychological distress in college women. Child maltreatment, 14(2), 127-147. ↩︎

  26. Charak, R., Byllesby, B. M., Roley, M. E., Claycomb, M. A., Durham, T. A., Ross, J., … & Elhai, J. D. (2016). Latent classes of childhood poly-victimization and associations with suicidal behavior among adult trauma victims: Moderating role of anger. Child Abuse & Neglect, 62, 19-28. ↩︎

  27. Elliott, A. N., Alexander, A. A., Pierce, T. W., Aspelmeier, J. E., & Richmond, J. M. (2009). Childhood victimization, poly-victimization, and adjustment to college in women. Child Maltreatment, 14(4), 330-343. ↩︎

  28. Finkelhor, D., Turner, H.A., Ormrod, R.K., & Hamby, S.L. (2009). Violence, abuse, & crime exposure in a national sample of children & youth. Pediatrics, 124(5): 1-14.; Hamby, S., Finkelhor, D., & Turner, H. (2012). Teen dating violence: co-occurrence with other victimizations in the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV). Psychology of Violence, 2(2), 111-124. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/abstract.aspx?ID=260431 ↩︎

  29. Finkelhor, D. Poly-Victimization: Protecting children and their development [PowerPoint slides]. Presented at the April 2018 Leadership Network meeting of the Illinois Helping Everyone Access Linked Systems. ↩︎

  30. Sieger, K., Rojas-Vilches, A., McKinney, C., & Renk, K. (2004). The effects and treatment of community violence in children and adolescents: What should be done?. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 5(3), 243-259. ↩︎

  31. Holtzman, R. J., & Roberts, M. C. (2012). The role of family conflict in the relation between exposure to community violence and depressive symptoms. Journal of Community Psychology, 40(2), 264-275. DOI: 10.1002/jcop.20511 ↩︎