by Pastor Barb
It was a Saturday, like many others. Our Violence Prevention Youth Group was at church, doing some cleaning and other tasks to improve the environment in our building. Then they went over to North Market for lunch, and talked about their ultimate goal: violence prevention.
After lunch they scattered homeward. Over half of the group lives in the same building, a few blocks from church. There are a lot of kids in the building, and their play space is the yard around them.
On this typical Saturday evening, some kids were outside playing. Some of our youth were in their apartment watching a movie, with their younger siblings. They heard gunfire. It sounded like it was about a block away. Then they heard cars screeching, coming nearer. Then more gunshots. Then a loud boom. Out the window, they could see that the boom had been a car crashing into the building next door. A man got out of the car and ran toward the alley. Another car crashed into a parked car. Finally, sirens. A police car, an ambulance. Flashing lights. And a body on the ground. All of this took place within clear view of the apartment windows. The kids outside saw even more.
When the first shots rang out, our youth who’d been watching a movie asked if they should get on the floor. That was their first reaction. What does that tell us? That they’ve been through this before; that they understand gun violence as part of their environment; that they know bullets sometimes come through apartment walls. Had they seen a body on the ground before? Or how the first responders or the coroner deal with the scene? More importantly, what effect does it have on adolescents and younger children to witness such things? Have they developed a “been there, done that” attitude, or are they traumatized by what they’ve seen? Both are problems for their development and well being.
If we need any more reasons to work to end violence in our community, here’s a big one: for the sake of the children. Since last winter I have been learning about the effects of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACES) on children and youth. This effort was motivated by the kids around me, what they said; what I saw in their behaviors, and in the reactions of adults around them. I was troubled that frequently, when kids would “act out” in public, people would assume that something was deficient in the kid, or that their parents were inept.
I’ve learned some important things in the past year. Here are two important ones:
(1) There are no purposeless behaviors. If a kid (or anyone) acts out, it’s a way of expressing something, when one knows no other, more constructive means of expression.
(2) Instead of thinking, “What’s wrong with you?” about that person, maybe we should think, “What happened to you?” And, far too often, what has happened to a kid who is acting out is some form of adverse experience, or trauma.
In our community, simply living with the awareness of gun violence around them is an adverse childhood experience. Knowing that there is risk of harm in going outside to play, walking home from school, or any other ordinary daily activity is itself traumatic. This is not just emotional damage. The chemicals that the body releases in response to trauma involve the brain in negative ways. If these chemicals wash through the body too often, the developing brain of a kid will change in ways that can affect behavior. If these effects aren’t recognized and addressed, a kid can grow up to be an adult who acts out. The anger, distress, fear, frustration, and all the other pent-up things that early trauma generates will emerge in some way, sometime. I have no doubt that a lot of people who sit in prison today ended up there because their “stuff” emerged in anti-social ways. As one local resident said recently, after hearing of a violent event that took place in front of kids, “I see kids in my community traumatized over and over again…and they never get help dealing with the emotional toll. They grow up to be angry, hurtful people.”
There is good news arising out of this day as well. In the building where so many witnessed the events of this day, the residents came together for a meeting with building management. The immediate response would be to send in therapists and counselors to help witnesses to process what they’d seen. The longer-term response would be to consider more safety features like motion-detector lighting, effective fencing of the yard, etc. And, there is interest in holding another meeting. Because we are organized for violence prevention, that meeting is likely to be held at The Camden Promise.
All of the youth in our violence prevent group have witnessed or experienced violence. Some of them witnessed it on this Saturday. These young people have parents who are knowledgeable, concerned, and involved. They talk with their kids. Because we have a violence prevention group, the youth also have had opportunities to speak openly, together, with caring adults (some of whom are city and state officials), to process what they’ve seen, to find common ground, to share common experiences, and to think creatively about solutions. These include directing the energies of the youth into positive, constructive engagement and service in the community.
A supportive community infrastructure is being built, one step at a time, to support and strengthen residents against violence and trauma, and ultimately to put an end to the violence altogether. This is for the benefit of the whole community; but, most of all, it is for the children.