Karl A. Racine is the D.C. attorney general.
With the District’s coffers brimming with excess revenue, our officials and community leaders must devise, fund and competently implement a comprehensive strategy to treat the trauma that hurts our city’s most vulnerable young residents and breeds the violence that affects us all — violence described in the April 23 front-page article “‘Did your father die?.’ ” That article depicted the experiences of 8-year-old Tyshaun McPhatter and heartbreakingly described parts of the nation’s capital as places where children live in fear.
At the Office of the Attorney General, we come into contact with kids such as Tyshaun every day. Based on that experience, there are three steps we can take quickly.
First, we must invest in proven, data-based methods to interrupt violence and address it as a public-health crisis. Shootings and other violence cause long-term damage to whole communities, hampering prospects of economic development, traumatizing children and trapping families inside their homes out of fear. While heightened law enforcement is necessary, it is not sufficient to turn around high-crime communities.
Models such as Cure Violence are proven. This model has three main components.
● Detect and interrupt potentially violent conflicts by preventing retaliation and mediating simmering disputes.
● Identify and treat individuals at the highest risk for conflict by providing services and changing behavior.
● Engage communities in changing norms around violence (for instance, organize community responses to every shooting to counter normalization).
Multiple studies have shown that, where implemented, Cure Violence results in reductions in shootings and violent confrontations. New Orleans went 200 days without a murder in its Cure Violence sites; Philadelphia saw significant reductions in shootings in Cure Violence areas compared with similar districts; and Baltimore’s Cure Violence sites saw fewer homicides. We must fund a Cure Violence-based program in the District.
Second, the District must invest in strategies to reduce and prevent childhood trauma at home. Ongoing trauma puts a child’s brain in a constant fight-or-flight state, making it hard for other parts of the brain to develop properly. Children experience difficulty paying attention. Untreated trauma can lead to school failure, higher dropout rates, and aggression and other risky behavior. According to the National Kids Count Data Center, for children in the District, rates of abuse and neglect — major contributors to childhood trauma — are higher than the national average. In neighborhoods such as Tyshaun’s, they are dramatically higher.
The District should invest in evidence-based parenting programs that have been proved to reduce rates of child abuse and neglect, such as Triple P (for “Positive Parenting Program”). Triple P draws on extensive social science research to help parents and has the strongest evidence base of any such program in the country. For instance, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded randomized study showed a reduction in child-abuse and foster-care rates in counties using Triple P compared with control locations. This is the kind of support that should be available to every District family that needs it.
Third, the District must invest more resources in programs and services that treat the effects of trauma before children make contact with the court system. Therapeutic early interventions, when instituted in a comprehensive manner, have improved public safety. For instance, since I took office, we have increased the rate at which we divert low-level juvenile offenders into the D.C. Department of Human Services’ Alternatives to the Court Experience (ACE) program. This program offers intensive services for six months, tailored to an individual child’s needs. Of the approximately 1,000 kids who have completed the ACE program, more than 80 percent have not been rearrested. That’s an extraordinary success rate in juvenile justice.
The same approach should be used to provide quality psychiatric services for children, increase trauma-informed practices for schools and provide other supports to children before they find themselves in trouble.
My colleagues and I do not pretend to have all the answers. But we owe it to our young people to give them what they need to become resilient, thriving, contributing members of our community. We must focus our resources to meet the crisis facing our children. No child in this city should have to face the fear that young Tyshaun and his peers face every day.