In his remarks in the wake of the Charleston shootings, President Obama said, "At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries."
When reading a recent article about Dylann Roof's early life history, I immediately thought of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) study on adverse childhood experiences (ACE.) A massive long-term study, it provides extensive evidence that exposure to adverse childhood experiences, including not only frank abuse, but also such things as neglect, domestic violence, divorce, parental mental illness and substance abuse, dramatically increases the risk of a wide range of health problems both mental and physical. The study is located on the CDC website under a section entitled "Division of Violence Prevention."
While I only know what I read in the paper, it seems that Roof had a very difficult childhood, with possible exposure to domestic violence. His step grandmother suggests that his parents may not have been available, either physically or emotionally, to care for him. She also indicates that he developed obsessive-compulsive behavior as a young child. In my experience with many young children with similar symptoms, this behavior often represents a solution to a problem, a way to manage overwhelming anxiety and emotional distress.
Who was listening to this young child and family when things began to unravel? Who took the time to understand the source of his increasingly troubled behavior? Is it possible that he was drawn to the white supremacist group as a way of finding a family? Was it a place where he could be heard when no one was listening?
The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without government supported paid maternity leave. This statistic reflects a lack of value of parents and young children. In stark contrast, in Finland, every new parent receives a “baby box” filled with clothes, diapers and other assorted baby needs. When the box is empty, it often serves as the baby’s first bed. While the items themselves are useful, the meaning of this box is of greater significance. It says “our society places value on new parents and babies.” Could there be link between the amount of violence in our country, in contrast to other developed countries, and the lack of support for young children and families?
Certainly the conversation about racism, and why such groups even exist, is critical. But going back to Roof's childhood may lead to the answer to the question President Obama raised. As the CDC wisely recognizes, supporting young children and families, and devoting resources early, before these adverse experiences can exert their harmful effects on the body, brain and mind, goes under the heading of "prevention of violence." Paid parental leave, and with it a shift towards valuing young children and families, may be a necessary first step.