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A New Bill Aims To Bring Trauma-Responsive Care To Baltimore

AP/Patrick Semansky

Bryonna Harris, Jaionna Santos and Damani Thomas were eating lunch at Frederick Douglass High School when a hall monitor was shot.


The students, who are now rising seniors at the West Baltimore school, later testified at City Hall about the February incident, as well as about the trauma they have experienced both inside and outside their homes in their short lives. 


“A lot of people are in denial about trauma,” Harris said. “They're like, ‘Oh, you know, my homeboy got killed, but that's what happens.’ It's not something that should not be processed, it’s not something that should not be talked about. It’s highly overlooked.”  


Their experiences are not uncommon: according to Behavioral Health System Baltimore, more than half of all children in Baltimore have experienced trauma, which the National Institute of Mental Health defines as a “shocking, scary, or dangerous experience that affects someone emotionally.” About 42 percent of Baltimore adults have experienced trauma, compared with only about a quarter statewide.  


Harris, Santos and Thomas are working with Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents Southeast Baltimore, to promote City Hall legislation they helped write. The bill, which debuted Monday, seeks to make Baltimore a “trauma-responsive city” by equipping city agencies with resources.

The bill would place social workers in city agencies that deliver services to youth and families, starting with the Department of Recreation and Parks. Cohen envisions spreading social workers across city rec centers to assist and support kids through their trauma.


“It’s important to get to the root causes of trauma and violence,” Thomas said. “If we don't, then it becomes a cycle.”


There’s about 200 social workers and 140 school psychologists throughout Baltimore City Public Schools, according to BCPS spokesperson Arezo Rahmani. That’s about one social worker per 396 students and one psychologist per 566 students. BCPS will roll out an initiative that places a full-time social worker in every school, starting the coming school year. 


Cohen, whose bill is co-sponsored by the entire City Council, said the approach has proved effective in other cities.


“I think it's critically important that we operate through a trauma-responsive lens,” the Democratic councilman said. “We know that in Baltimore we tried again and again and again to police our way out of our problems.”


The negative health effects of trauma are well-documented. If left unaddressed, it can manifest into spiraling, long-term health issues like chronic pain, obesity and cardiovascular disease, said Shantay McKinily, the director of the University of Maryland’s Positive Schools Center.


Traumatized teenagers often behave destructively or disruptively, and turn to alcohol or other drugs to cope, according to the NIMH


And, trauma is “not randomly occurring,” said Wendy Shaia, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and executive director of the school’s Social Work Community Outreach Service. It is linked directly to the aftereffects of city redlining and other racist policies, such as poverty, that many black and brown Baltimoreans still face.


“We really have to address our history in Baltimore,” Shaia said. “History — structural racism — has led to a lot of the trauma we see.”


The social workers and social work students who would be placed throughout city agencies would learn about the concrete ways in which historically racist policies continue to cause trauma for Baltimoreans living in poverty, she said. For example, students will learn about redlining and the toll that living in poverty can take on a family.


“We don't look at trauma separate from that lens of Baltimore's history because we don't think it's possible to do so,” Shaia said.


If the bill passes, Lane Victorson, a faculty field instructor at the Social Work Community Outreach Service, will be responsible for placing the social workers and students throughout the city.  


“I'm confident that there are probably a lot of rec center directors and staff who know a lot about what's actually going on with a young person, who maybe just they feel limited in what they can do,” Victorson said. 


With the knowledge and tools to support trauma that social workers could bring, they can help create a more trauma-responsive atmosphere throughout a rec center, Victorson said.


The bill also calls for representatives across many agencies, from the Fire Department to the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, to receive training from the city Health Department on how to identify and support kids dealing with trauma. 


It would create a “Trauma-Informed Care Task Force” to develop a unified citywide strategy that aims to make city government more responsive to trauma. The group would consist of students, parents, clinicians and city council members. 


The bill will have to overcome a few more legislative hurdles to become law.  


“It's time for the youth to start speaking up. because adults can only say so much,” Santos said. “But we have to speak up, because we're the ones who experience the most.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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