When you wake from a nightmare, with rapid breathing, heightened awareness, and increased heart rate, it is a psychic shock, a trauma. You look around for clues that it wasn’t real, and finding them, you eventually calm down and go back to sleep.
Yale University researcher Steve Marans, director of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, says he has found that children exposed to violence have an identical physiological response to that trauma, but for them, there is no going back to sleep.
“Imagine being one of these children,” he asked the audience during the June 16-17 Symposium on Reducing Youth Violence at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. “Sixty percent have seen at least one violent act, 46 percent have experienced a physical assault, 9.8 percent have seen intra-family violence, and 10 percent have been maltreated. An adverse childhood study of 13,000 children found that kids exposed to four of these stresses experienced a 12-fold increase in drug & alcohol abuse and suicide.”
What Marans found was the poor Black community in New Haven had essentially raised generations that suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He told of being called to an emergency room to help with a “scary” patient, a young man with all gold caps—diamond gang initials on top, his initials on the bottom. He’d been shot twice in a drive-by. When told his friend had died in the shooting, he had what Maran’s called a “psychic break,” but there were no beds in the hospital, so he wasn’t treated. He’s now in jail.
“I learned he’d had a chronically depressed mother, who was abused by his heroin-addict father,” said Marans. “He was bounced from home to home. Where were the schools? Where were the social services?”
In an attempt to break this cycle, Marans started the Child Development Community Policing Project, which paired patrolling police officers with Yale clinicians.
“We started making house calls,” he said, and started a short film about the program.
The officers in the film, several indicated that having psychiatrists ride along changed their perspective on dealing with people in the aftermath of violence. On “domestic” calls, children are often present and witness violence by one or more parent. They are scared, for themselves and their parents. They have no idea what will happen to them.
“When we have to break down doors, often kids are there,” said one officer. “Before the program, I never thought of the effect on them.”
Another officer said he didn’t even know he’d become oblivious to the effects.
“When all you see is failure, failure is what you expect,” he said.
Marans said there is now immediate attention given to children in such situations. There are follow-ups to address the lack of parenting skills, and a coordinated approach from clinicians, police and child protective services.
“One of the keys with these children is right after an event to address the fact that something awful happened, that it is not normal,” he said. “We now have women and children calling police about these issues. And these children are about 65 percent less likely to suffer PTSD.
“Fostering relationships is part of police work. It’s not an us-versus-them thing, it’s an us-plus-us thing.”