The Paula Gordon Show
Curing Violence

Robin Karr-Morse

. . . directed parent training for the Oregon child welfare system and served as the first executive director of the Oregon Children‚s Trust Fund. She is a licensed family therapist, consultant and lecturer. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she, her husband and son all share the name Karr-Morse.


Violence begins in the brain, the brain begins in the womb and that means we finally can begin to address violence in our society. Think babies. Start counting at conception.

Robin Karr-Morse is a leader in the State of Oregon‚s child welfare system reforms. Meredith Wiley is an attorney who served as Chief of Staff for Oregon's Speaker of the House. Working together, they led Oregons major effort to prevent child abuse statewide, designing and managing Oregons "Childrens Care Team." In the process, Wiley and Karr-Morse applied a growing body of new information from the brain sciences about babies' developing brains, organs which are uniquely "use-sensitive" from the moment of conception. Karr-Morse and Wily have surveyed the growing body of information about early brain development in their book Ghosts from the Nursery (The Atlantic Monthly Press).

Science is beginning to understand how the human brain develops and it turns out the first 1,000 days of life -- from conception to age two -- are critical to connecting to society. Before we can talk, we have learned (or too often failed to learn) how to live in society.  Abuse and neglect in those early days ruins lives. But Americans drastically overlook our children‚s prenatal, infant and early childhood development. It‚s not the finger that pulls the trigger or the penis that rapes, according to the research which Karr-Morse and Wiley quote. It‚s the brain. Babies reflect back what they absorb, biologically and socially.

The implications are clear. When we improve our babies‚ lives, we improve our entire society. Finally, we can begin to replace today‚s futile responses to violence -- angst, hand wringing and prison building -- with constructive personal actions and public policies. While government programs will not solve all the problems, they can go a long way toward addressing them. In addition to Oregon‚s efforts, other states, including Hawaii, Minnesota and Rhode Island, are beginning to develop programs that guide and support young families; offer emotional as well as physical nourishment for pregnant mothers and their infants; monitor the progress of babies; require developmentally appropriate day care. Non-stigmatizing programs similar to Great Britain‚s highly successful home visitation program are beginning to be developed. Whether princess or chamber maid, every new Mom and her baby gets visited, assuring all parents and their babies the benefit of good information and community support.

Put the face of a baby on a whole range of issues relating to violence, Wiley and Karr-Morse urge. It‚s our best hope for addressing the vast personal pain associate with today‚s violence, as well as beginning to contain the soaring cost of incarcerating more and more people. Consider the alternative. If we fail to act, one in twenty babies born today will spend some part of their adult life behind bars, with prison cells now accounting for one-third of all the new housing units under construction in America. The financial costs of violence are as staggering as the social and personal ones.

We can finally trace the roots of violence to a place where we can begin to solve problems instead of placing blame. Because violence comes from the same roots as do empathy, conscience and trust, early prevention is key to curbing violence. It has an added advantage. Babies are fun!

Meredith S. Wiley

...was Chief of Staff to the Oregon Speaker of the House when she and Karr-Morse restructured Oregon's services to families and children. A lawyer with a master's degree in public administration from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Wiley now lives and works in New York City.


Conversation 1

Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley tell Paula Gordon and Bill Russell why the entire future of our community depends on how we treat our babies who are drastically overlooked in both policies and programs, nationwide. They show how this results in our skyrocketing rate of incarceration, the highest in the Western industrialized world. They explain why the roots of America‚s current epidemic of violence are in early brain development, from conception to the age of two.

Conversation 2

Karr-Morse and Wiley provide evidence that violence begins in the brain and give examples. They describe the critical roles of mothers, fathers, the extended family and the larger community. Babies are not born violent, but Karr-Morse describes conditions that erode a baby‚s ability to think, heighten the baby‚s emotional reactivity, set the stage for vulnerability to mental ill-health, alcohol and drug abuse, and teen pregnancy as well as violence. They bridge the unnatural gap between nature and nurture, describing how brains develop differently than other organs.

Conversation 3

Different kinds of abuse have different effects, Wiley and Karr-Morse explain with devastating examples from America‚s classrooms. Karr-Morse explains why the way children are treated is the way they later respond, reflecting what they have absorbed both biologically and socially. They give a list of the extensive and expensive social costs that result.

Karr-Morse describes how brain research in the last five years offers us entirely new ways of thinking about how societal violence is rooted in brain development. She offers striking contrasts between the costs of incarceration versus programs as simple as home visitation, noting that at the current rate, America will soon have more people incarcerated than in college.

Conversation 4

Put the face of the baby on the issue of violence, pleads Karr-Morse. Associating violence with adult males or adolescents distracts us from preventable brain-based behavior that is shaped in the first 33 months of life. Puppies get better attention than babies, she fears. Karr-Morse offers her personal ideas about why Americans are reluctant to face the impact of this dramatic time of life. Wiley and Karr-Morse offer action plans, convinced most parents are desperate for help and good information. Violence, Karr-Morse and Wiley maintain, is everyone‚s problem, rooted in biology, not class or race. They detail the staggering financial costs of having the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, including the most repressive dictatorships.

Conversation 5

Emotional stimulation is as essential as cognitive stimulation as a baby‚s brain develops, Karr-Morse explains. She uses specific programs to illustrate how we can engender a trusting relationship between a care giver and a baby by building a healthy community. Wiley explains environmental factors affecting our babies and shows how the entire community is itself an ecology. Karr-Morse suggests ways which better treatment of our babies may heal all of us in a time when one in three homes being built today is behind bars.

Conversation 6

Psychology is physiology and vice versa, Karr-Morse assures us -- everything from violence to empathy is rooted in a child‚s earliest years. Wiley shows the dimensions of the shift we must make in understanding the human community and species. It starts with human beings who can reciprocate a trusting, connected relationship, which must be experienced in a baby‚s very earliest months and years. Babies are a great place to start being human -- and they‚re a lot of fun, too!


This conversation took place in the alcove of the Mills B. Lane Room of the The Commerce Club in Atlanta. We continue to be impressed by the Club‚s impeccable service and thank all involved.

Assuming the validity of the estimate that twenty percent of the population of the United States will at some point in their lives be imprisoned; and doing some simple-minded, back-of-the-envelop, arithmetic:

20% of a population of 260,000,000 people at a cost of $80,000/year for 1 year each:

spread over the lifetimes of those imprisoned. This does not include the damage to people, property and the society inflicted by those people. Nor does it include the damage done by those who are not both captured and convicted. Four Trillion Dollars.

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