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Cleveland’s Trauma Training Could Do More Than Stunt Violence

Ashton Marra
Teenagers play basketball at the Zelma Watson George Community Center.

The Zelma Watson George Community Center sits in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Cleveland. After school, a group of teenagers plays a game of three on three in the indoor basketball court as the recreation center’s manager, Ieshia Harrison, looks on.

“This is one of the most popular things that we have,” Harrison said. “A majority of our kids do come to [play] basketball.”

The facility also offers evening meals for kids, weekend activities like tee ball and free roller skating for families on Thursday nights, programs that keep kids busy, Harrison explained.

The rec centers are the focus of a new initiative that could bring more aid to the kids and teens who use them on a weekly basis.

Members of the Cleveland City Council recently approved the $1 million, one-year program that will train rec center workers, like Harrison, and other city employees to recognize the symptoms of trauma in children with the hope that it will decrease future rates of violent crime in the city by offering them additional support.

“A young person cannot choose where they live and if that community is one that is plagued by violence, then they will be exposed to trauma in such a way that could be detrimental for them later on in life,” said Monica Bhatt, director of research at the University of Chicago’s Crime and Education Lab.

That’s because trauma, or the chronic stress that comes from trauma, can actually impact the way a child’s brain develops, said Geoffrey Nagel, CEO of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago graduate school that focuses on early childhood education.

“So, we’re talking about things like abuse, growing up in a home where there’s mental illness, substance abuse, or a family member has been incarcerated,” explained Nagel.

Consistently high levels of the stress hormone cortisol leave children in a perpetual state of fight or flight that can lead to violent outbursts, Nagel said, but can also cause children to develop learning disabilities and affect health outcomes.

Children who experience trauma can be anywhere from one and a half to eight times more likely to develop a chronic health condition like diabetes, cancer or heart disease as an adult, Nagel said, and it all comes at a cost.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University put a dollar amount on the long term financial implications of childhood trauma in a recent study that focused on exposure to domestic violence.

“What we found was that by the time a child that is exposed to domestic violence reaches the age of 64, that child’s average cost to the nation’s economy over their lifetime will reach over $50,000,” Director of the university’s Center on Trauma and Adversity and one of the study’s authors Megan Holmes said.

The $50,000 is in increased court costs associated with violent crimes, medical expenses and lost productivity.

Based on past research, the CWRU study assumes a quarter of children will be exposed to domestic violence, and Holmes calculated the economic cost for the city of Cleveland is $45 million a year.

But the study looked at exposure to only one type of trauma—domestic violence—and Jennifer King, assistant director for CWRU’s Center on Trauma and Adversity, said children living in an urban environment face so much more.

“We know that trauma doesn’t occur in a vacuum, right?” King said. “If you’ve been exposed to one of these events, it’s highly likely you’ve been exposed to more than one and the more that you’ve experienced, the more severe the symptoms or the impairment.”

But all of the researchers, Bhatt, Nagel, Holmes, and King, say there are ways to prevent those costs and reverse the impact of trauma.

That is with programs that use something called trauma informed care. King explained trauma informed care is about looking for the root causes of bad behavior in a kid.

“If a child is acting up, rather than immediately punishing that behavior, taking a step back and thinking what might be going on that I’m not seeing and how can we address that differently?” she said.

The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab research shows trauma informed programs that include therapy or counseling can reduce youth crime involvement by as much as 50 percent and increase graduation rates by as much as 20 percent.

For the city of Cleveland, the $1 million trauma informed training could mean lower crime rates, and also increased academic achievement, reduced rates of chronic disease, and improved productivity, but the experts say one year won’t be enough.

They’re encouraging more time and more money be invested in the program if city leaders want to see a better Cleveland.

Ashton Marra covers the Capitol for West Virginia Public Radio and can be heard weekdays on West Virginia Morning, the station’s daily radio news program. Ashton can also be heard Sunday evenings as she brings you state headlines during NPR’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. She joined the news team in October of 2012.