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High-ranking Maryland officials swap ideas for addressing childhood trauma in Baltimore

Just one traumatic experience in childhood can permanently impact a child’s health and decision-making, studies show.

In Baltimore, where there have been more than 1,500 homicides and 3,400 shooting victims since 2015, children experience trauma on a scale that some leaders say amounts to an “epidemic.”

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Some of the region’s leaders came together Tuesday to look at the most recent research and discuss what more can be done. U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings organized the forum on childhood trauma at the offices of Humanim, a nonprofit that helps people with developmental disabilities and behavioral health challenges.

It was a follow-up to a hearing conducted by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which Cummings chairs. Cummings has been trying to boost attention to the pervasive health issue of trauma that affects nearly half of children in Baltimore and across the country.

Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s former health commissioner, moderated the event, which was attended by such Maryland officials as U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, Baltimore Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young, Baltimore Schools CEO Sonja Santelises and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who listened to health experts and discussed ways to prevent childhood trauma and cope with it.

Traumatic events such as the death or incarceration of a parent, a drug addiction or mental health issues affecting family members are considered an “adverse childhood experience,” experts explained. Just one of those experiences in childhood is associated with a heightened risk of using illicit drugs, abusing alcohol, attempting suicide, perpetrating violence and suffering from chronic diseases.

The economic burden of child “maltreatment” from substantiated cases across the country in 2015 was estimated to be $428 billion, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes increased health care costs, public spending for childhood protective services and special education, and increased criminal justice spending, among other costs.

Michael Sinclair, professor of social work at Morgan State University, spoke of Baltimore’s entrenched cycle of violence in which many children have lost relatives and friends. Since January, he noted, Baltimore has seen more than 200 homicides.

“If just 10 children saw someone murdered, we have now 10 people traumatized, who are potentially more violent, including the perpetrator. So we really have an epidemic in this city," he said.

Consider the experience of Bryonna “Bry” Harris, 17, a rising senior at Frederick Douglass High School who brought many of the attendees to tears and a standing ovation.

In 2014, Harris’ older brother was murdered.

In 2015, a close friend was killed.

Then, her dad went to jail.

“He was there one day and then gone the next,” she said.

Three days after he came home from jail, he died.

“I found him dead in the back room,” she said. “I screamed at him to wake up but he didn’t. I had him for three days and then he was gone, forever.”

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“That’s when I realized I had had enough,” she said.

Harris worked over the summer with City Councilman Zeke Cohen to draft a bill aimed at making Baltimore a “trauma-responsive city,” mandating more training and resources for those who interact with children.

Cohen recently wrote about the trauma Baltimore students face, such as when a group of men pulled up to the O’Donnell Heights playground in late March and fired 37 rounds, injuring four people shortly after two elementary schools let out for dismissal.

Santelises said schools should become “healing places” for students. She said she has increased the number of schools with wellness centers from 20 to 40. The centers are places where students can find adults to point them to resources like Roberta’s House, a local nonprofit that provides counseling to children and parents.

Annette March-Grier, president of Roberta’s House, said she has seen children suffer everything from panic attacks in the middle of the night to bed-wetting. She said she wants every school to teach skills like meditation and mindfulness that will help children deal with anxiety and fear.

Left unchecked, trauma creates a perpetual cycle of harm, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said.

“People who are harmed begin to harm other people,” he said.

The police department is training officers in crisis intervention, so they can recognize youth acting out because of trauma.

“We have to be able to treat that appropriately,” Harrison said.

Harrison said he’s trying to build better relationships and trust in the community to better help youth when they are traumatized.

For every new officer joining the force, he said he asks them to do three things: build new relationships, improve good relationships, and repair broken relationships.

“Building community trust is paramount to reducing and preventing crime,” Harrison said.

Henry Posko, president and CEO of Humanim, cited a recent study that followed children who had experienced trauma over 10 years. Using MRI technology, researchers found there had been changes in the brain that put individuals in the position of not making good decisions.

Cummings ended the forum quoting a line from the movie “Good Will Hunting” that he used to open the earlier congressional hearing.

Robin Williams’ character, a psychiatrist who is treating the troubled Will Hunting played by Matt Damon says repeatedly, “it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault,” during the film’s emotional climax.

“If we listen here today, we understand," Cummings said. "A lot of people say negative things about children. But it’s not their fault.”

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