CRF Blog

Advocates aim to save Baltimore children from impact of violence

by Bill Hayes

In Advocates aim to save Baltimore children from impact of violence, part of a series on the effects of violence, the Baltimore Sun reports on the toll children take and efforts to spare them from suffering.

Even as shootings, stabbings and murder trials grab the spotlight, violence in Baltimore is exacting another insidious, often invisible, toll — warping the health and development of the city’s youngest residents. For every child who is shot, provoking public outrage, there are hundreds of others who hear gunshots or see fights and stabbings in neighborhoods across the city. After the ambulances drive off and the crime scenes are cleared, many of these children are left with deep psychological wounds that can trigger physical ailments.

Studies have piled up showing that in the tangle of tough, intractable issues like poverty and drug addiction, exposure to violence is a major factor damaging children’s health. The stress that fills their little bodies breeds anxiety and depression, making it hard for them to concentrate in school. In fact, research has found that such experiences hurt the development of crucial areas of their brains — those involving attention, memory and behavior control. In the worst cases, children walk around with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder no different from those plaguing soldiers who have fought on the front lines.

According to one researcher who has long studied these children, nearly a third of children exposed to violence will develop PTSD. As the children age, researchers believe, the impact of violence can translate into serious health problems, including hypertension and diabetes. Some early research shows that stress may even alter their DNA.

“You hear about the shootings, but you don’t hear about the aftermath,” said Annette March-Grier, president of Roberta’s House, a grief support center that borders on the Broadway East and Oliver neighborhoods. “It’s like you’re killing 10 other people when you kill one. It’s just slowly.”

The stakes are high for Baltimore and Maryland — and their taxpayers. If these children are not helped, they are more likely to turn to violence themselves or need government-funded mental health services. Research shows that they’re also more likely to struggle to maintain jobs and be productive members of society. Since a U.S. attorney general’s report in 2012 described children’s exposure to violence as a national crisis, some fields, including social work, police and health care, have begun special training for workers. There are also efforts to help schools become safe places where these children can get support.

“The science has caught up. You cannot raise a kid with high levels of trauma and violence and expect they can just bounce back,” said Martha Davis, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has funded projects in high-crime areas to address the problem. “Now the hard work is: How do we take this information and make systems that work?”

Upton/Druid Heights, near downtown, between North Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, is on the frontier of this daunting effort. There are nearly 3,000 children 18 and under in the neighborhood, and statistics show it to be one of the sickest and most dangerous in Baltimore, a place where life expectancy is nearly 10 years shorter than the citywide average. And it is here — a historic African-American neighborhood that was once a major part of the local civil rights movement — that a cadre of social workers, teachers, pastors and others have been testing out ways to help these kids.

Through a federal grant program called Promise Heights, the University of Maryland School of Social Work is collaborating with schools, churches and community groups. The goal of the multiyear initiative is to combat the cycle of poverty by wrapping children and families in supportive services from cradle to college. Dealing with trauma is a major focus of that work.

The University of Maryland team has embedded social workers in neighborhood schools. They make home visits and coach adults on parenting. Teachers learn that instead of asking a misbehaving child, “What’s wrong with you?” they need to ask, “What happened last night?”

Said Bronwyn Mayden, the project’s executive director and an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work: “The way we look at it in Promise Heights, everyone is traumatized.” [more]