Fellowship Story Showcase
No child allowed outside: Children find refuge from violence throughout Wilmington
In pockets all around Wilmington, gun violence routinely finds children where they live and play, leaving some to struggle with the aftereffects of trauma. This report, the last in a three-part investigation, examines the numerous organizations that provide safety and support when gun violence in Wilmington leaves children traumatized, grieving, and lonely.
Part 3: Children find refuge from violence throughout Wilmington
(Visit original story link on DFM News here to view full video.)
When Wilmington police spot a toddler at a crime scene, they call a clinician, just as they’d call a tow truck to the scene of a collision.
They wouldn’t have had that option before city police partnered with mental health professionals five years ago, says police chief Michael J. Szczerba. Last year, police referred more than 500 children to Community Development-Community Policing (CDCP), a program that matches social workers and therapists to children who have witnessed crime.
As more and more Wilmington children are exposed to violence and the trauma that comes with it, police, counselors, community-based organizations, and schools are boosting their efforts to guide those children to physical and emotional safety. Police and counselors work hand-in-hand; out-of-school programs provide safe havens.
“All of these children are scared, even the ones who pretended not to be. You have to be scared when your very life is threatened,” says Robert Dunleavy, a crisis program manager for the state’s Division of Prevention and Behavioral Health Services. “Even if they’re not scared that they’re going to get killed, they’re still afraid that their whole world is going to fall apart: ‘My whole world is my mom or dad. Who’s going to take care of me? Am I going to like the relative that I’m going to?’ ”
Since the CDCP program started five years ago, says Szczerba, police have changed how they treat children at a violent crime scene. Previously, he says, police had few options when they came upon a traumatized child at a crime scene.
“We’re in the living room of that house at 2:30 in the morning and a seven-year-old is sitting on that sofa shaking in tremors. In the past, we left that child, who has to go to school in a few hours, sitting on that sofa. Then, the next day, when they’re not participating in class, that teacher doesn’t know and that school psychologist doesn’t know that child witnessed four hours before he came to school.”
Today, however, “there’s going to be contact with that school that morning. That family is going to have help,” Szczerba says. “We’re not in the social-service business, but, in a way, we are.”
One way that counselors help such children is through counseling and therapy, which teaches them that they have the capacity to calm themselves.
“Kids are really, really resilient. Even those children who have experienced traumatic losses still have a good chance of bouncing back, so long as they’re provided with the right support,’’ says Malina Spirito, clinical coordinator for Supporting Kidds, an agency that provides long-term treatment to children whose families are disrupted by violence.
“It’s important for kids to know they’re not alone—that they’re not the only five-year-old who lost their dad, or their uncle, or their brother, or their cousin,” says Candice Davis, a clinician with CDCP. “If the child and the family are receptive to service, then I think you have a better chance of things leveling out.
Without intervention, worst-case scenarios can unfurl: “We’ve had a kid caught by the police stalking his mother’s abuser with a weapon, and we’ve had plenty of them who have planned it,” Dunleavy says.
As an antidote for hopelessness, Greg Morris introduces children to the world beyond their blocks.
Morris, a case manager with CDCP, connects children who have been witnesses and victims to crime with mentors who bring them into their offices and show them the types of jobs they could be doing if they concentrate on getting through school and into college.
“Then I’ve got the kid talking to someone he sees as successful, and the guy is telling him, ‘Look, I’ve got a lousy family too.’ That’s what clicks with these kids,” says Morris.
Dozens of nonprofits and government agencies in Wilmington provide safe havens for youth and guiding those who’ve been exposed to toxic stress.
Clarence Fraim Boys and Girls Club
When 75 to 100 children walk through the doors of the Clarence Fraim Boys and Girls Club each evening, they enter a place where the rules are much different than the city streets they just left.
“We have to convince kids that when you walk through these doors it’s safe not to follow the code of the streets,” says Executive Director Phil Arendall. “If I’m out in the street and a kid picks on me and I don’t fight back, I become a target of other kids. … So, if a kid steps on another kid’s shoes, there is no conflict-resolution process. It goes straight to ‘I’m going to crack you.’
“In this safe environment they learn, ‘Hey, I’m at the Boys and Girls Club. I can just have a debate about this. I don’t have to immediately resort to violence.’ ”
For $15 a year, children can engage in healthy, healing activities at the club, taking sketch lessons from professional artists, learning culinary arts, and participating in sports or character-development programs. Tutors and mentors are available. Students from the Red Clay school district who fall behind in school can make up credits at the club. High school seniors can take Delaware Technical and Community College courses through the club. They can sign up for a bus tour of college campuses.
“If you don’t give kids something positive in which to belong,” Arendall says, “I assure you they will find something negative.”
Children develop relationships with staffers and volunteer mentors and often come to them for guidance when they find themselves in a fix, he says. “We serve kids whose parents bring them and … whose parents may not necessarily be engaged in their lives. Unfortunately, there are a great deal of families [in which] parents are apathetic or worse. … Just having a positive adult role model can save a life.
Police Curfew Center at the Walnut Street YMCA
Last summer, 240 juveniles who might have been arrested for curfew violations were brought to the Walnut Street YMCA instead of to a police station. Police officials say it can sometimes be difficult to find a parent to be responsible for a child who is out after curfew. The police department’s summer curfew center, staffed with YMCA social workers, introduced children and their parents to low-cost recreation programs.
“It put the police in a different light, said Lt. Scott Jones. “It was a more relaxed environment. It just brought down a lot of barriers that not only the kids had, but officers as well. We have that stoic front that people see. There’s not going to be a tangible result where we say we stopped this or that, but I have to believe in my heart that we made some connections.”
Chief Szczerba hopes the outreach programs will hack at the roots of gun crime: “We do a pretty good job of pruning the tree,” he says, “but, if it’s an invasive plant, it’s still an invasive plant. You have to attack the root of the problem. The root is an entangled mess with poverty, drug addiction, and irresponsible parenting.”
St. Michael’s School and Nursery
About 10 of the 165 children who attend St. Michael’s School and Nursery have a family member who was murdered or injured in a violent event, according to Helen C. Riley, the school’s executive director. The school reports that 18 of its students have a parent in prison or rehabilitation or a parent whose whereabouts is unknown. Still, for generations, the 120-year-old school has drawn the children of mayors, judges, doctors, and professors with its award-winning educational programs and its mission of making a high-quality education accessible to children in the immediate neighborhood.
Located across the street from a low-income housing complex and in the census tract boasting the second-highest rate of poverty in the state, the nonprofit school for newborns to first grade provided 80 percent of its students with scholarships last year totaling $750,000.
The school, operated as a home-school partnership, counsels parents not to discuss violence or negative events when their children are at home, even when they think the children aren’t listening.
“Children need positive reinforcement of the goodness of life, the joys of life, and all the wonderful things there are to experience and the happy times there are with people so that there’s balance in their lives,” says Riley.
There are no televisions in St. Michael’s classrooms, and teachers are not allowed to discuss news in front of the children—even one day last winter when they arrived for work to find a murder victim and a roped off crime scene outside the school’s front door. Administrators used the snow-alert messaging system to tell parents to drop their children at the side entrance.
“Children need to be in a school environment that’s different from the street environment,” Riley says. “Some schools have a lot of problems that mimic, at a lower level, what’s happening in the neighborhoods. That sets children up for the expectation that violence is a normal part of life.”
West End Neighborhood House
Friendly, smiling staff members at the West End Neighborhood House practice what they call “reality therapy” with 50 to 75 children and teens who attend the facility’s drop-in activities program on a typical night. They take time to listen to kids and explain how one person’s behavior affects others.
Kids walk in the door in knots of two or three, says program coordinator Antwain M. Flowers. He says he rarely sees children walking alone in the neighborhood, where last year two boys lost their bikes to thieves wielding two-by-fours. “They have that mentality that I’m Mr. Brave, but you rarely see them walking by themselves.”
“These kids hold so much in, and, when they finally let it out, you hear them being scared,” Flowers says. “When kids get to the level where they’re telling an adult something, even a trusted adult, they’re truly, truly scared.”
Courtney White says that after her big brother Brandon Brinkley was shot to death in 2008, Delaware Hospice’s free school program for bereaved children helped her process the grief.
“I didn’t want to believe it, but it really hit me when we went to the funeral and the viewing of the body,” the eighth-grade peer leader and band member says. “I got emotional sometimes, and the other kids knew how I feel because some of them lost someone in their family for the same reason. They’d help me out and talk to me,” she says. “My friend told me that she lost her friend by the same reason of violence, and I helped her through it because she felt like she didn’t want to be here anymore.”
Many city programs are, in therapist parlance, “trauma-informed environments”—places where staffers have academic and in-house training to pick up on cues from children who may show few outward signs of problems. Parents or teachers might not realize what’s going on with a child exhibiting signs of flashbacks or fight-or-flight response.
“If the folks in the community are going down Fourth Street and they don’t like what they see, reach out to the agencies that are doing the work—the Boys and Girls Club and West End Neighborhood House and all those other places. Get involved. Don’t just stare at the problems,” Arendall says.
“We can help these young people. We can save them,” he says. “It’s hard. And we might not be able to save them all, because kids make choices. Sometimes, the wrong choice can get you killed.”