A safe start from trauma

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Veronica Coney, who overheard a murder occurring outside her home, talks with counselor Kate Goetz about how to keep her children from being negatively affected by community violence.

Photo by Jason Reblando

Veronica Coney, who overheard a murder occurring outside her home, talks with counselor Kate Goetz about how to keep her children from being negatively affected by community violence.

After recovering from a devastating illness, Veronica Coney hoped to make a fresh start with her four children in a home she rented in Chicago Lawn.

Then she and her children overheard a murder in the alley. A few weeks later, her children saw a dead body on the street as they were driving to school.  In another incident, one child saw someone holding a gun outside school. The family often heard the sound of gunfire in the neighborhood.

Their hopes for a new beginning were dashed. “I was kind of wigging out,” Coney says. “I didn’t feel safe at all.”
The children didn’t either. Her toddler daughter, who was 2, quickly became “very, very clingy,” she says. Her son, then 12, was terrified to go outside. At school, some of her children began to have behavior and attitude problems.

Coney reached out for help and began receiving counseling through Family Focus Englewood, a social service agency that provides such help through Safe from the Start, a program for families in which at least one child up to the age of 5 has been a victim of, or witnessed, a violent incident.

Experts say that exposure to violence and trauma can impact young children not just emotionally but also cognitively, causing developmental delays. Although the program does not work directly with CPS, school-aged siblings of younger children are included in counseling sessions.

While hard data on the number of children who have been exposed to violence is limited, the number is likely high in many Chicago neighborhoods. The Centers for Disease Control found in a 2008 survey of over 4,500 children that more than 25 percent of them had witnessed a violent act in the last year, and 60 percent of children had been exposed to violence in some way—either as a witness, by learning of a violent act against a family member, neighbor or close friend, or by being threatened at home or school.

Another older study offers a more grim picture. A 1985 survey by psychiatrist Carl Bell and psychologist Esther Jenkins found that of 500 Chicago children at several South Side elementary schools, 25 percent had witnessed a shooting, and one in three had seen a stabbing.

Awareness of the impact of trauma exposure is growing among those who work with young children. But to make better decisions about services, “there’s a need to better understand the volume of children who are impacted,” says Marlita White, director of the Office of Violence Prevention in the Chicago Department of Public Health.

White adds that her department  is “participating in conversations” about ways to track these numbers, such as surveys and data-sharing collaboration among social service agencies.

Last year, Safe from the Start sites in Chicago served just 279 children and 132 adults. Statewide, about 1,600 adults and children each year receive services through the program, according to data from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority. Chicago’s four sites are part of 11 Safe from the Start-funded sites statewide.

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Parents of very young children often don’t understand the potential impact of exposure to violence or trauma. To combat this lack of knowledge, Safe from the Start sites around the state convene community councils. In Chicago, the four sites serve the entire city.

The councils’ goal is to get the word out about services and increase community awareness, ultimately preventing children’s exposure to violence.

They also reduce stress and provide support for families “at the zip-code level,” White says.

Providers often find themselves torn between wanting to get the word out, and knowing that they don’t have capacity to serve all the children who need help.

At one presentation to parents at First Start preschool in West Englewood, social worker Kate Goetz—an infant mental health specialist at Family Focus—asks parents to define violence. She talks about how exposure to violence harms children, and notes the Carl Bell study.

“Why do we have so much violence?” Goetz asks the group. A lively discussion follows, with parents giving reasons that range from bad parenting, to ignorance, to gang-bangers on the corner wearing nice shoes—implicitly showing children that violence pays—to racism in school funding.

But one thread ties all the factors together: “Children learn from what they see around them,” Goetz emphasizes.

The parents talk more about whether they think their children would, or should, feel comfortable coming to them to talk about fears and worries. As the event ends, one woman, Margaret Davis, tells a story that illustrates the potential long-term impact of trauma.

Years ago, she says, her son witnessed a shooting. At the time, she and his father were separating and the situation was already causing the boy to have problems in school. The shooting upset him even further, and he ended up repeating kindergarten.

After the shooting, “he couldn’t focus anymore,” Davis says. “He would just look out the window.”

Although the boy was clearly having problems, “they didn’t do anything at that school” Davis continues, explaining that he was never referred for services. She took him to see a psychiatrist when he was 7, but that move didn’t go well because the doctor just wanted to rely on medication for her son, which she opposed.

Now, Davis’ son is 16 and doing better in school. But he still acts “too rebellious,” she says.

School is often the place where the symptoms of trauma exposure emerge, says Mary Reynolds, a social worker with Casa Central Social Services, the West Side provider for Safe from the Start.

The program also provides training for preschool and child care teachers, parents, and others in how to recognize trauma exposure and work with young children who show the signs. Statewide, Safe from the Start presentations reach about 11,000 people a year.  

Reynolds has worked with a number of children who, as she describes it, were “expelled” from—asked to leave—day care or preschools because of behavior problems that are linked to trauma exposure. Young children who are dealing with the after-effects of trauma exposure “are often extremely difficult to care for. But they’re the kids who more than anyone need stable, consistent, safe places to be,” she says.

Among the youngest children, the signs include being “clingy,” having a hard time with transitions from one place or activity to another, and excessive crying.

Older children may have trouble paying attention. “[It] can look like the kid is bouncing off the walls,” Reynolds says, and teachers might mistakenly think that a child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or another behavior disorder.

Some children might regress in their development, forgetting how to use the bathroom or even how to talk. Or they may develop frequent headaches or stomachaches, leading to absences from school.

“For a lot of the kids we work with, school is a place where a lot of stuff gets acted out, a place where their behaviors and symptoms are misunderstood, misdiagnosed, or mistreated,” Reynolds says.

Reynolds works regularly with teachers to help make classrooms feel safer, something that CPS clinicians may not have the time or training to do. One key element is a stable routine, and teaching students to ask for help or tell their teacher if they are stressed, worried, sad, or can’t pay attention.

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At Casa Central, 60 percent of children in Safe from the Start have witnessed domestic violence, 10 percent have been victims of abuse or neglect, and the remaining 30 percent have been exposed to more than one kind of violence, whether at home or in the community.

“Neighborhoods where there’s a higher level of community violence also tend to have a higher level of child abuse and neglect,” Reynolds says. “Some of that correlation can just be stress-related, in the same way that when we see the economy tank, child abuse spikes.”

While Safe from the Start focuses on children from birth to 5, Reynolds says counseling includes the whole family.

“If there’s an older sibling that is having a hard time, it’s going to be really hard for the younger sibling to get back on track,” she says. “More often than not, the violence has been experienced in one way or another by the entire family.”

Referrals come from schools as well as social service and domestic violence agencies, and concerned parents who identify the need. The waiting list for her program is four or five months long.

But other children may fall through the cracks. “Especially when we are talking about little kids, 5 and under, they might not be in school, they might not be in preschool,” Reynolds says. “They might not have anyone around them other than their family members to notice signs of trauma exposure.”

In sessions with counselor Goetz, Veronica Coney says she has learned coping strategies to soothe her own, and her children’s, fears. Goetz helps her “make sure we know how to use emotions and put them in their proper place so we won’t act out,” Coney explains.

Working with Safe from the Start has taught Coney  and her children “to distinguish between what’s safe and what’s not safe.” Now, when her children are upset by noise outside, Coney asks them, “Is everything in the house okay? Are you safe?”

The exercise allows her daughter to regain a sense of safety, Coney explains. “Once she [answers and] says, ‘I am safe,’ she knows her life is not in danger.”