AUSTIN — Dr. James Gabarino has a vision of a socially healthy community, one in which children and families can flourish.
“In many ways, the social environment for kids has changed over the last 30 to 50 years,” said Gabarino, director of the Family Life Development Center and professor of human development at Cornell University. “It’s dangerous, even lethal.”
Gabarino was the keynote speaker at the Children, Youth and Families Institute, which drew more than 400 family and youth specialists from the Texas Agricultural Extension Service and other agencies.
He mentioned an example from his childhood, where as editor for his high school newspaper about 30 years ago, he made some of his peers angry. They retaliated by dumping trash on his lawn. He said he recently read where one young man had recently died at the hands of his peers in a drive-by shooting. “The same stimulus — making your peers angry — had a very different response,” Gabarino said.
Social toxicity parallels the idea of physical toxicity, or living in a particular environment that is physically dangerous. In both types of environments, the more marginal populations — or the populations who for one reason or another don’t have as many resources — are more vulnerable.
He gave the example of a day treatment school in Chicago for emotionally disturbed children that was successful when it began in the 1970s. “Although they’re taking the same kids with the same vulnerability, these kids are living in a more socially toxic environment than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. And the program now is not working.
“The level of aggression, nastiness and violence that the kids are expressing in the school just overwhelms the program. It’s really shocking,” he added.
“These kids in effect are kind of psycho-social asthmatics. That is, when the environment deteriorates they show the effects first and worst,” he said.
He said he was not implying that things used to be great and now they’re terrible. There have been many advances in social improvement in recent years. Medical technology has improved dramatically and the formal forms of “isms” have declined (racism and sexism).
“It’s just a recognition that in the social domain, we’ve seen a lot of deterioration,” he said.
Polio, for example, was a major threat about 30-40 years ago. It’s been wiped out in the United States. However, “more children died last year from being shot than died of polio at the height of the polio epidemic,” he said. A social epidemic has replaced a medical one.
The presence or absence of any single risk factor tells us very little if anything about eventual developmental outcome, he said.
He cited a study that dealt with outcome indicators and intellectual development at ages 4 and 11. Intellectual development at age 4 is a good prognosis of how children will do in school, he said. If they’re doing well then, then they probably will do well in school.
Intellectual development also indicates resilience in coping, or facing life’s crises. “To face these crises with substantially below average intellectual ability is like facing them with one hand tied behind your back,” he said.
In the study, children were measured against how many risk factors — such as poverty, drug abuse in parents, single parent household, or a mentally unstable parent — they had. If they had no risk factors out of the eight, their average IQ scores were 119, or average under good conditions.
If they had only one risk factor, their IQ scores were still 116. With any two risk factors, their scores were still 113.
“That’s good news,” Gabarino said. “That means even if you can’t make life risk free or you can contain the risk to a relatively small number, kids are doing fine.”
However, when the risk factors increased from two to four, the IQ scores fell dramatically to 93. “It’s as though you’re falling off a cliff there,” he said. Additionally, IQ scores fell to 85 when eight risk factors were present.
In other words, Gabarino said, risk accumulates.
“The systems get overloaded at a certain point. They collapse,” he said.
“You have to look for the buildup of social toxins in the lives of kids. They’re not distributed randomly across the population, they tend to clump together. That clumping together creates targets of opportunity for intervention and policy because that’s where the real action is,” he said.
The vulnerable populations show vividly what is happening across society, he said. For instance, in the 1960s, the rate of births to vulnerable teenage populations, such as African-American teenagers, was high and a source of concern. Now, it’s much higher and the rate among white teenagers is what is was for black girls 30 years ago.
“Vulnerable populations often serve as a kind of social indicator or kind of weathervane to tell us where things are going. They show the effect of social toxicity first,” he said.
Social toxicity has consequences. There is a assessment instrument, called the Child Behavior Checklist, that contains more than 100 items that allows professionals to assess mental health and behavioral developmental problems in kids.
It gives a score and has a cutoff point called the clinical threshold. If children score above a certain level they need professional mental health intervention to recover. In 1975, the study showed that 10 percent of U.S. children were above the clinical threshold. In 1989, the sample was repeated and it was 18 percent.
“That’s an indication of social toxicity at work,” he said. “It’s taking its toll on more and more kids,” he said.
No one is immune from the effects of social toxicity. “But where you start from has a lot to do with where you will go, particularly with teenagers, he said.
He told the audience that parents and social agencies needed to return to some basic ingredients that constitute a basically healthy environment. These are:
- Stability — Children are basically conservative and thrive in a stable environment.
- Security — They also need security. He said the odds of children being killed in Chicago are 20 times higher than in Northern Ireland. One out three children worry they will not reach old age because they will be shot, according to one study.
- Affirmation — Rejection is a psychological malignancy. Children need messages of worth, he said.
- Time for socialization — Studies show that 70 percent of American families do not eat dinner together any longer. Children often are left to fend for themselves. He acknowledged that because of the economy and single-parent households, many parents need to work, but others should ask themselves whether their child will suffer because they are trying to maximize their income.
- A home for the human spirit — In a society where everything is disposable, children need to know that the structure of their world provides a home for their soul.
- Economic equality — More and more children are living in impoverished households. In other words, he said, “It’s the stupid economy, not ‘the economy, stupid,'” he said.
- A sense of community — This means a community that is healed, not traumatized, that has a whole range of economic opportunities and role models.A kinder, gentler society with shared power and mutual respect.
The last ingredient is where the United States falls short when compared to other nations, he said. There is a lot of rhetoric about family values but no substance. The government exists to protect human rights — that is written into the Declaration of Independence.
“That is the message we need to bring to the public forum,” he said.