Homicide of Children and Youths

Murders of children and youth, the ultimate form of juvenile victimization, have received a great deal of deserved publicity in recent years.1 Yet, while images of Polly Klaas and student victims at Columbine High School are vivid in the public's mind, statistics on juvenile murder victims are not. Substantial misunderstandings exist about the magnitude of and trends in juvenile homicide and the types of children at risk of becoming victims of different types of homicide.

This Bulletin gives a brief statistical portrait of various facets of child and youth homicide victimization in the United States. It draws heavily on homicide data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI's) Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHRs), which are part of the Bureau's Uniform Crime Reporting Program; however, it also relies on a variety of other studies and statistical sources.

Highlights of the findings presented in this Bulletin include the following:

  • In 1999, about 1,800 juveniles (a rate of 3.0 per 100,000) were victims of homicide in the United States. This rate is substantially higher than that of any other developed country.
  • Homicides of juveniles in the United States are unevenly distributed, both geographically and demographically. Rates are substantially higher for African American juveniles and for juveniles in certain jurisdictions. Yet, 85 percent of all U.S. counties had no homicides of juveniles in 1997.
  • Homicides of young children (age 5 and younger), children in middle childhood (ages 6 to 11), and teenagers (ages 12 to 17) differ on a number of dimensions, suggesting that they should be analyzed separately.
  • Most homicides of young children are committed by family members through beatings or suffocation. Although victims include approximately equal numbers of boys and girls, offenders include a disproportionate number of women. Homicides of young children may be seriously undercounted.
  • Middle childhood is a time when a child's homicide risk is relatively low. Homicides of children in middle childhood show a mixed pattern. Some result from child maltreatment and others from the use of firearms. Some are sexually motivated, and some are committed as part of multiple-victim family homicides.
  • Homicides of teenagers, most of which involve male victims killed by male offenders using firearms, rose dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s but have declined sharply since 1993.

Overall Patterns
Overall, the statistics on murders of juveniles in the United States are grim and alarming. According to FBI data, 1,789 persons under 18 were victims of homicide in 1999 (Fox and Zawitz, 2001). That number--equal to a rate of 3.0 per 100,000 juveniles or more than 5 juveniles per day--makes the United States first among developed countries in homicides of juveniles (Krug, Dahlberg, and Powell, 1996). In fact, the U.S. rate is 5 times higher than the rate of the other 25 developed countries combined and nearly double the rate of the country with the next highest rate. The rate at which juveniles are murdered in the United States is related to the Nation's high overall homicide rate: 5.7 per 100,000 in 1999, 3 times higher than the overall rate of any other developed country (Fox and Zawitz, 2001).

Homicide is the only major cause of childhood death that has increased in incidence during the past 30 years. While deaths of children resulting from accidents, congenital defects, and infectious diseases were falling, homicides of children were increasing. Homicide is now ranked second or third, depending on the specific age group, among the 3 leading causes of childhood mortality, accounting for 1 out of 23 deaths of children and youth younger than 18 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998). More children 0-4 years of age in the United States now die from homicide than from infectious diseases or cancer, and homicide claims the lives of more teenagers in the United States than any cause other than accidents (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998). Since 1993, however, homicides of juveniles have joined the downward trend in homicides of adults that

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