In D.C.'s Cedar Heights complex, tackling the trauma of violence

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 2, 2010

Most Washingtonians have probably never heard of Cedar Heights, let alone know where it is. That doesn't matter, in a way, because you can probably find a community like it anywhere in the District.

Cedar Heights is a housing complex in the Anacostia area of Southeast. It has a community center operated by Reaching Out to Others Together Inc. (ROOT), an organization dedicated to advocacy and intervention on behalf of crime victims and their families. Kenneth Barnes founded ROOT after his son was killed nine years ago by a 17-year-old who had run away from a D.C. juvenile facility.

Barnes says his organization's intervention in Cedar Heights has nearly eradicated gun violence in the complex. But, he told me this week, one thing in Cedar Heights that hasn't gone away is the trauma that results from violence.

With a grant from the city's Office of Victim Services, ROOT Inc. reviewed the violence-related experiences of 29 Cedar Heights youths involved with its programs; 21 were male; eight were female. They ranged in age from 12 to 21.

ROOT's findings should concentrate the minds of everyone who reads about a local homicide and then casually turns the page or clicks away. Even when there are no longer bodies on the ground, scars from violence remain.

The ROOT survey found that:

-- All 29 young people had been victimized by violent crime.

-- All 29 had experienced or witnessed crimes being perpetrated.

-- 42 percent of the youth (including all of the females surveyed) had been the victim of gang violence.

-- 34 percent of the youth (all of them male) had been shot at.

-- 27 percent had witnessed a murder.

-- 32 percent (all of them male) had been assaulted.

-- 48 percent had witnessed an assault.

One youth reported being wounded; another said he had been shot at on multiple occasions. Three youths reported that a family member had been murdered.

This week, I sat down with Barnes and ROOT outreach staff members at the community center they have set up in Cedar Heights. Barnes said the impact of violence on youth is significant but is, for the most part, ignored. Attention focuses on homicide victims and the perpetrators, he said, and people have little regard left over for those who survive the shootings and assaults. Yet they, too, are damaged by violence.

"The trauma that is being imposed on our youth, our families and our communities," said Barnes, "is immeasurable."

Barnes's point is supported by John A. Rich, director of the Center for Academic Public Health Practice and a professor at Drexel University's School of Public Health. Rich, as a primary-care physician at Boston Medical Center, has treated young black victims of violence. In his book, "Wrong Place, Wrong Time," Rich notes that young crime victims suffer a range of physical and emotional injuries. "Many recover physically," Rich said, "but the deeper and more persistent psychological wounds are often overlooked."

Those wounds are felt beyond crime scenes. Violence, Rich said, can lead to absenteeism from school because youths are afraid to attend. It can also increase behavioral problems in school.

As the former mentor of an at-risk youth, as an uncle whose nephews attended D.C. public schools and as a graduate of that system myself, I know that violence or the fear of violence can be so crippling that a child sometimes has trouble keeping his mind on what the teacher is saying. And violence finds its way onto daily attendance sheets, test scores and dropout rates.

Cedar Heights is just one community bruised by the social effects of violence. Those effects manifest themselves in substance abuse, stress disorders, domestic violence and absentee fathers -- some of whom are absent from the home because they are locked up or strung out on drugs.

ROOT aims to deal with those effects by attending to the emotional and physical needs of youths and their families. Barnes praises Cedar Heights residents for working with his staff on violence prevention. "The family is at the epicenter of our concerns," Barnes said. ROOT is trying to line up groups to provide mental health, parenting and job training services for youths and their families. It is also scouting three sites in high-risk areas of Wards 7 and 8 where it can establish community centers offering similar services.

Here's wishing success for ROOT Inc. Cedar Heights is, after all, a microcosm of communities in the District, a city where too many children lead traumatic lives.

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