Fighting violence's hidden effects

A gunshot in the night or flashing police lights are enough to make children aware of their vulnerability

No child should have to witness a neighbor gunned down in the street or the beating of a parent or caregiver. Such experiences not only are disturbing when they occur, they also can leave deep emotional and psychological scars that affect children's mental and physical health for years afterward. Baltimore must offer such children the kind of specialized services and supportive care that will allow them to overcome the effects of such early childhood traumas or it will lose their potential forever.

Baltimore has the fifth-highest homicide rate of major U.S. cities, and killings here have left thousands of families grieving the deaths of loved ones victimized by violent crime. But as the Sun's Andrea K. McDaniels reported last Sunday, the violence afflicting many poor communities in Baltimore also exacts another insidious, often invisible toll on the city's youngest residents. Their exposure to the constant violence around them can inhibit their cognitive and emotional development, make it difficult for them to achieve in school and scar them with psychological wounds that trigger physical ailments.

The violence that affects children takes many forms, some of which are easily observed while others are less readily apparent. Children can be brutalized directly through domestic violence or abuse. But they are also vulnerable to exposure to acts of violence committed against others, which can prompt feelings of fear, helplessness and anger. Children who regularly hear gunshots at night or see police cruisers and ambulances racing down their streets with lights flashing quickly make the mental leap from what is happening to someone else to what could easily happen to them.

Ms. McDaniels noted that nearly a third of children exposed to such violence will develop PTSD, and that as they age the stress built up in their bodies can translate into serious health problems, including hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. It's no exaggeration to say early exposure to violence can be a deadly, if invisible, killer. Stress also affects crucial areas of the young brain involving attention, memory and behavior control, leaving children unable to absorb classroom lessons, follow their teachers' instructions or engage constructively with classmates.

The problems created by early exposure to violence often first become evident when a child enters school. Although school may be the most stable institution in such youngsters' lives, teachers and principals are not typically trained or equipped to give these children the intensive support and specialized care they require to overcome the effects of early trauma. It is asking a lot of educators to expect them to reverse the damage, but unless someone does, these children are at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence themselves, requiring government-funded mental health services, becoming unemployed or ending up homeless or in jail.

The collaboration Ms. McDaniels describes between the University of Maryland School of Social Work and schools, churches and community groups in Baltimore's Upton/Druid Heights area to address the trauma inflicted on neighborhood children by exposure to violence is the type of holistic intervention that is required. The multiyear initiative is funded through a federal grant program called Promise Heights that aims to combat the cycle of poverty by wrapping children and their families in supportive services throughout their academic careers.

It's an innovative approach to the problem of early childhood trauma that is similar to experiments elsewhere such as the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, which provides "wrap-around" social and counseling services to neighborhood children from cradle to college. Unless Baltimore can establish such a program on a wide scale, we may be doomed to the kind of maddeningly slow progress we have seen in Baltimore's school reform effort in recent years.

The city has made notable progress toward reducing violent crime rates, as homicides and nonfatal shootings have fallen from their highs of a decade ago. But, as Ms. McDaniels reported in subsequent installments of her series of articles, the impact of violence in Baltimore is still being felt by families who care for relatives victimized by violent crime and those touched by the murder of a loved one. Baltimore's children shouldn't have their futures closed off by early exposure to violence and its debilitating effects on their young minds and bodies. The city can never feel safe for anyone as long as its most vulnerable residents are routinely victimized on its streets by early childhood trauma.

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