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Make Baltimore a trauma-informed city, but make sure it has the resources to make it successful

Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen wants to create a trauma-informed city.
Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen wants to create a trauma-informed city. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

In some parts of Baltimore, violence and death are a normal part of life. Children see dead bodies and hear gunshots ring out on a regular basis. They witness violent fights and close relatives arrested by cops and carted off to jail. Police cars, their sirens blaring, rush down the street so frequently it’s like background noise. Kids live in poverty stricken neighborhoods and households with parents struggling with substance abuse.

People are living lives filled with trauma that makes it a struggle to get through the day. More than 56% of children in Baltimore have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. These young people may have a tough time concentrating in school, and people of all ages who have had such experiences may have difficulty keeping their emotions in check. In turn, they may lash out and appear erratic. This trauma often spans generations, making it hard for parents with untreated trauma to help their children — and the cycle just continues.

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City Councilman Zeke Cohen — realizing the root causes of the city’s social problems need to be addressed if we want to see an end to poverty, violent crime and other issues — wants to transform Baltimore into a trauma-responsive city.

We stand behind the idea, which would have employees at all levels of government take into account a person’s traumatic background. Teachers work to calm students down and figure out what is going on in their lives to make them act out rather than throw them out of class. The same could be said about instructors at the city recreation centers. Find a kid help rather then send him back to the streets because he gets too upset over losing a basketball game. Police can deescalate rather than pull a gun and worsen a situation. Social workers help connect families to counseling rather than remove kids from parents.

Some institutions within the city have already independently taken this approach. The school system has ramped up its hiring of social workers, and several schools turn to “restorative justice” before suspending a student. Under former Health Commissioner Leana Wen, the city made addressing trauma an underlying component of its effort to address Baltimore’s health inequalities.

A citywide comprehensive strategy will help people work together rather than in silos. They can pass along what works and what doesn’t and set up standards for all agencies to follow. Mr. Cohen was prompted to introduce his legislation after hearing from students at Frederick Douglass High School following a shooting there. His legislation creates a task force that would continue to engage people from the community. Mr. Cohen’s plan makes the community a part of the solution and not the problem.

We only ask that Mr. Cohen and the council make sure the money is there to implement such a bold and life-changing idea. We’ve heard too many parents complain that discipline is being lost in schools and teachers complain they have no control over their classrooms in the name of restorative justice. It’s not that these practices don’t work but that the schools don’t always have all the tools they need to implement such resource-intensive practices. We need key players not to feel overburdened but empowered to usher through change. We have seen programs come and go at the whim of the grant cycle.

Mr. Cohen has said he does not know yet how much something like this would cost. We know it won’t be cheap, and we encourage him to get a better grasp. Ultimately, we are confident that money spent now to address trauma will be more than made up for later in lower costs of policing, incarceration, addiction treatment and more.

Whatever the upfront costs, we are encouraged by the effort to make a cultural shift in the city, no matter how daunting it may be. It is not enough anymore to ignore whole communities.

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