City plans new youth violence initiative through hospitals

Baltimore health officials want doctors' help to break the cycle of violence.

Faced with surging violence in the city, Baltimore's health officials want more doctors, nurses and others in area hospitals to engage with victims and perpetrators of crimes and steer them out of harm's way.

The "Words Not Weapons" campaign will remind the hospital workers who often come in contact with the troubled youths to get their facilities' social workers involved.

Those professionals can connect the youths with existing resources in the community that can help them get back into school — or to find jobs or just somewhere safe and learn about nonviolent conflict resolution, said Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner.

"In the ER you often see victims of violence; maybe they came in with a superficial stab wound, or they punched a wall or someone else and broke their hand," said Wen, a former emergency room physician. "So often providers don't feel like they have a way to help break the cycle of violence."

Wen announced the campaign Tuesday afternoon during a news conference at the John Eager Howard Recreation Center, flanked by students, anti-violence activists and a handful of emergency room doctors.

The children said they have no interest in violence but were mixed on how receptive some of their peers would be in resolving matters more peacefully.

But the activists and emergency physicians pledged to intervene more often — breaking the "treat and street" mentality, which discharges the injured without direction.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the health department's chief medical officer, said she planned to begin reaching out to hospitals to make sure they were aware of various resources available, such as mentoring and job-training programs, school-based initiatives, shelters and others that could help young people live a safer and more productive life.

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," said Khaldun, adding most hospital social workers know about at least some programs. "But ideally every hospital would have a violence prevention program. And doctors would call the social workers and get people to applicable resources every time."

The health department plans to hand out cards with reminders of what to ask those who come to the emergency room. On the other side of the card are the phone numbers for a crisis hotline, the United Way and employment centers, as well as the address of the school re-engagement center and the website for the 300 Men March.

Wen said some hospitals, such as the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, already have extensive programs. At other hospitals, she said, there are individuals who make such efforts to engage youths, but mostly they target those with serious injuries.

Dr. Denise Fraga, a University of Maryland Medical System emergency doctor, said she didn't know what resources were out there and was glad to know there was an official campaign to spread the word.

"We see so many kids in the emergency room," she said. "It would be great to get them connected."

Wen believes many youths caught up in violence want to talk about it and figure out how to break out, but "they just don't have an outlet."

The campaign will be run out of the city health department's Office of Youth Violence Prevention, which operates such programs as the recently expanded Safe Streets. That program taps outreach workers to combat violence in their own neighborhoods.

Deshawn Batson, a member of the city's youth commission, which advises city officials on youth matters, will do its best to spread the campaign's message.

"We will try and remember that words matter," he said.

mcohn@baltsun.com

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