Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

Trapped in Tragedies: Childhood Trauma, Spatial Inequality and Law


Each year, psychological trauma arising from community and domestic violence, abuse and neglect brings profound psychological, physiological and academic harm to millions of American children, disproportionately poor children of color. This Article represents the first comprehensive legal analysis of the causes of and remedies for a crisis that can have lifelong and epigenetic consequences. Using civil rights and local government law, it argues that children’s reactions to complex trauma represent the natural symptomatology of severe structural inequality — legally sanctioned environments of isolated, segregated poverty. The sources of psychological trauma may be largely environmental, but the traumatic environments themselves are caused by spatial inequality. The Article sets forth a theory of structural inequality that demonstrates the importance of place-based differences in institutional functioning and the role of such disparities in producing the neurobiological, psychological and behavioral outcomes comprehensively described in the literature from those disciplines (including the results of an original study of Newark, NJ school children). This alternative legal analysis of child trauma compels a different remedial approach to both intervention and prevention. It argues that interventions like special education reform are necessary but problematic because they risk pathologizing the African-American poor and exhausting institutional capacity. Instead, it provides a framework for prevention focused upon increased mobility and reformed local institutions.


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