PORTLAND — This week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, a time each year when communities come together with vigils and events in support of victims of crime.

As the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine and a former Maine Superior Court justice and district attorney for more than 35 years, I know very well that the victims of crime are all too often children.

More than half of America’s children and teens are in some way exposed to violence in their homes, schools and neighborhoods every year, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice study. Many are victims of violence themselves, but many more will witness violent crimes or share the trauma when their families, school friends or neighborhoods are targets of violence and abuse.

Unfortunately, many of these young people experience violence from multiple sources, compounding the trauma and its effects. The consequences of this kind of exposure can be difficult to measure, but the harm is real and lasting.

We know that children and teens exposed to violence are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They are also more likely to be absent from school, experience learning difficulties and fail. These children are also more likely to enter into, and stay in, abusive relationships, and they are also at higher risk of going on to commit crimes themselves.

This cycle of violence and harm has ripple effects throughout our communities. Children exposed to violence develop an insecure view of the world around them. They often feel unsafe. When they encounter future problems, they may not trust that their parents, teachers or police can protect or help them.

Recent research in neuroscience has made clear how critical the early years are in the development of the brain’s architecture, and that exposure to violence can create toxic stress reactions in the brain that weaken that architecture, effectively undermining the learning and development to come.

We can reduce and buffer the toxic stress reactions in our children by providing treatment to put into place a preventive system that catches kids before they fall.

Our understanding of the effect of violence on children and teens is growing. With this knowledge, we need to raise awareness of the consequences of children growing up in fear, and develop networks of services and interventions aimed at promoting safe communities.

Together, we can interrupt the cycle of violence and defend the children, so that when they encounter problems in the future, they may come to trust that their parents, teachers and police will protect and help them.

At-risk families need access to counseling and support services to help them support their children and break the cycle of violence and fear. It is critical for communities to also actively support teachers, law enforcement and victim service providers with the funding and training needed to support and protect children in their daily work.

On the 2014 anniversary of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, it is fitting and proper to remind the citizens of Maine that all victims, including children, have the opportunity to access services that are designed to address challenges posed by the exposure of children to violence.

The Maine U.S. Attorney’s Office established a Victim Witness Services Unit in 1991. It is dedicated to providing support and education to victims and witnesses of federal crimes. As early as the late 1970s, several of the newly established full-time District Attorney’s Offices began to offer victim-witness services, later finding legislative support to establish a victims’ Bill of Rights that is now codified in Maine’s criminal code.

In addition, the Portland Defending Childhood initiative is a collaboration between the city of Portland’s Public Health Division and the Community Counseling Center that provides evidence-based, clinical treatments to children exposed to violence and their caregivers. It also provides training to teachers, health care providers and other professionals who work with families so they understand their roles in reducing the impact of exposure to violence on children.

It is time to protect our children.

— Special to the Press Herald