More needs to be done to address a hidden toll of violence that is creating a ripple of social ills in Baltimore, including hurting children's ability to learn, community advocates and health professionals say.
The Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Bethel AME Church in Upton/Druid Heights said his church is working to open an empowerment center in the neighborhood that he hopes can address problems created by the aftermath of violence.
"If we could solve this problem or began to fix it, our children would be able to go to school with less stress and less exposure to violence, and they would be able to learn properly at an earlier level," Reid said. He is looking to partner with the University of Maryland School of Social Work, which has implemented several initiatives in the neighborhood through a program called Promise Heights.
The Baltimore Sun chronicled the work of Promise Heights as part of a three-part series that looked at the often-unnoticed problems that accompany violence in Baltimore neighborhoods.
The series explored how losing a relative to killings can emotionally paralyze many people. It told of families thrown into the role of caregiver for relatives disabled by violence. And it looked at how the stress of growing up in violent areas is hurting the brain development of young children, hindering learning and creating behavior problems.
Promise Heights social workers are embedded in two elementary schools in the Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood, where they help students learn to manage their emotions, teach parenting schools to their moms and dads and instruct teachers and others in the community on how to help traumatized children learn.
Bronwyn Mayden, an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work who heads Promise Heights, said it needs to expand to more schools. The staff of the federally funded program is talking to the principal at a third elementary school, Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary, about offering services as it does at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School and Furman L. Templeton Preparatory Academy.
Mayden believes children in many city neighborhoods who have learning and behavior problems associated with their exposure to violence could benefit from similar programs. "We know that at a number of other schools, this is what is happening," Mayden said. "That is why the kids are acting like they do."
Funding often proves an obstacle for programs that focus on the collateral damage of violence. A concerned resident sent the social work school a check for $10,000 for Promise Heights after reading The Baltimore Sun articles. But raising money is a constant challenge, Mayden said, because many grants are short-term and funders want to see evidence to prove that a program is working. Outcomes aren't easy to immediately measure in programs like Promise Heights, Mayden said.
Programs have come and gone in Baltimore over the years — and funding is often the reason for their going.
Interim city health commissioner Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey worked with two Johns Hopkins programs in the 1980s and '90s that succumbed to a lack of resources. One program that placed psychologists and counselors in schools came to be regarded as too expensive, she said. Another, modeled after a program at Yale University that sent mental health clinicians and community members to murder scenes, struggled with constantly "boot-strapping" money together and was eventually dissolved, she said.
Many people ask about bringing the latter program back, Duval-Harvey said.
Janice Gentry, a community liaison who volunteered to go to crime scenes as part of the Hopkins program, was reminded how much it was needed this summer when a woman was shot feet from Gentry's East Baltimore house. Many of the kids in the neighborhood saw the body, including her 7-year-old daughter, who had been getting ready for bed but came outside when she heard the commotion and saw the body.
The story is too common in her neighborhood, Gentry said. "These programs come and go, but people are still out here suffering," she said.
Duval-Harvey said the city recently hired a consultant to work on a strategic plan to address youth violence that would take a holistic approach.
City and other public health officials have long treated violence as almost an infectious disease to be prevented. While such efforts are necessary, advocates say, new efforts would also look at issues such as the stress kids face from living in violent neighborhoods even if they are not directly touched by violence.
"People often look at youth as perpetuating the violence," Duval-Harvey said. "We are looking at reframing the issue in a broad way so as not to blame the victim."
Dr. Daniel J. Levy, a regional chair for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said he believes doctors who provide routine health care to children from rough neighborhoods could do more to help them if they were trained to understand the impact of violence. Levy, an Owings Mills pediatrician, said the group is also looking at ways to train doctors to take into account a child's background and environment during treatment.
The academy has already a created a Center for Resilience to research poverty and violence. It is considering how such factors as poor nutrition, housing and schools or lack of play and exercise may contribute to violence.
"We have to look at everything that has an impact on a child's life," Levy said.