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Trauma experts meet in Oakland to share practices for youth violence prevention

on May 2, 2011

Last year, over 500 young people ended up at Oakland’s Highland Hospital due to acts of violence that include bullying, physical assaults or gang activity on the streets and inside schools. Without intervention, 44 percent of young victims of this kind of violence will get hurt again, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Youth violence is an epidemic that spans cities across the country, but during the last decade, more programs designed to prevent such violence from spreading have begun to spring up. “We think of violence the way we think of any other type of disease that gets transferred,” said Anne Marks, Executive Director of Oakland-based non-profit Youth ALIVE! “The way it gets transferred is through trauma. You become infected with it.”

During a two-day conference last week, Youth ALIVE! hosted the third annual National Network of Hospital-based Violence Intervention Programs conference at Oakland’s Preservation Park. Over 120 representatives from non-profits across the country met to discuss strategies on how to stop the “revolving door” of young violence victims who are treated at urban emergency rooms, only to return later.

“The hospital provides a unique opportunity to begin to address the issues surrounding the trauma,” said Toni Rivera-Joachin, one of the conference’s keynote speakers. “The fact that they were shot or stabbed just highlights many of other things that have been going on in that child’s life that have gone unnoticed.”

Joachin is the manager for the Milwaukee-based non-profit Project Ujima, which serves youth who have been victims of a violent crime and live near the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Medical care, counseling and gang intervention are provided in each case.

The first organized model for bringing violence prevention to the hospital room originated in Oakland with Youth ALIVE’s Caught in the Crossfire program, which urges young victims of violence to not seek revenge against their attackers. The program started twenty years ago with a young man who was recovering from a gunshot wound at Highland Hospital. The only support he received from friends was the pressure to retaliate and return to his former life on the street. But he had different plans. His vision of preventing other youth from going through what he had experienced became Caught in the Crossfire.

While it has long been common practice for hospitals to treat the young victims of child abuse, suicide attempts and sexual assaults, twenty years ago there were no care guidelines in hospitals that addressed the unique needs of youth injured in gang-related attacks. In the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Victims of Crime recommended that hospital-based counseling and prevention programs be created in communities struggling with gang violence. Project Ujima and Caught in Crossfire were already up and running at a time when fewer than a dozen hospitals across the country had similar programs.

Now, the National Network, made up of doctors, service providers and public officials, is in its third year. Workshops at last week’s conference spanned topics from how staff providers can avoid burnout to how to identify whether a client has been the victim of other crimes like sexual exploitation. Next year, the National Network will be meeting in Philadelphia where they hope to have completed a best practices curriculum for launching and sustaining programs that will break the cycle of violent crimes against youth.

Marks views a violence victim’s time at the hospital as a golden opportunity to implement change in their life. “Their eyes might be open, their ears might be open, their hearts might be open to different way of life,” Marks said, “and if we take that time to start to work with them then we can put them on a different path.”

Click the audio player to hear more about teens preventing violence in Oakland.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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