Fellowship Story Showcase
No child allowed outside: Children suffer toxic effects of chronic violence in 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 second in a three-part investigation, looks at medical research that shows chronic violence can change the architecture of a child's brain, causing long-term damage to social and thinking skills.
Part 2: Children suffer toxic effects of chronic violence in Wilmington
(Visit original story link on DFM News here to view full video.)
Alarms go off in some children’s heads every day in Wilmington. Continually exposed to danger in violent areas of the city, the children can experience changes in their brain chemistry that flip their flight-or-fight responses to “on,” sometimes permanently.
“It’s like the car alarm that won’t go off. It just keeps going and going and going,” says Malina Spirito, clinical director for Supporting Kidds in Hockessin, where many children receive treatment for exposure to chronic violence.
In slivers of the city where violence is common, toxic stress affects the way children see the world.
One Wilmington mother laments that her teenage son is constantly on guard. “He’s always willing to go off, always ready,” says the mother, whose name is being withheld to protect her son’s identity. “He’s like, ‘Somebody come do something to me, and I’m going to do something back.’ ”
The experiences of some Wilmington children illustrate the latest research about the physiological effects of violence and toxic stress on children.
Impact on Young Brains
Brain scientists say that exposure to violence can alter a child’s future in the same way a glitch in a rocket’s launch can change its trajectory. Violence-induced stress can change the architecture of a child’s brain, possibly with lifelong results, according to researchers. It can affect a child’s ability to concentrate, change focus, order tasks, and even interpret facial expressions. Changes in fight-or-flight responses can occur even in infants.
Effects like these could have profound implications for Wilmington, where 95 people were shot last year. Children often witness the shootings or hear the gunfire.
Even very young children “are processing the elementary aspects of [violence]—which are the fear, the anxiety, and the threat,” says Nathan A. Fox, director of the University of Maryland’s Child Development Lab and a member of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. And the violence doesn’t have to be directed at the child, he says. It could just be in the environment.
Everybody experiences stress, Fox notes, and some forms of stress are beneficial “in terms of getting us aroused and going in the morning, or taking a test, or driving a car on a highway.” Exposure to “toxic stress,” however—like high degrees of chronic abuse or violence—causes the body to generate cortisol, a neurohormone that can be both protective and harmful, according to research by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
Cortisol gives children energy, helps form memory storage, and provides healing to parts of the body that may be injured, Fox says, but too much cortisol is toxic to some neurons in the brain. In an infant or young child, it can damage the development of brain circuitry associated with memory and learning. It can impair the way those circuits work in an older child, adolescent, or adult. It can hinder a child’s executive function—the ability to follow a plan, focus attention, and inhibit impulses.
The damage can be undone later, Fox says, but it’s difficult. He compares it to building a house: “If, all of a sudden, you find out, after the walls are up and the sheetrock is there, that there are things that need to be undone in terms of the initial wiring, you can do it. But it’s going to be pretty difficult. It’s possible, but it’s much more difficult.”
Kids on the Edge
“Kids that have this going on for them—and there are plenty—are not able to focus in school the way we want them to,” Spirito says. “They tend to be more irritable. They’re more prone to relationship issues. They’re more prone to get into fights. So, they’re more prone to get in trouble in school.”
“Some children feel they can’t relate to anyone,’’ says Candice Davis, a therapist with Community Development-Community Policing, a program that provides therapist services to children affected by violent crime. “They get involved with other children that they feel are like themselves, and then they want to be the Billy Bad Asses, I guess, just to get more respect in the street. I think respect in the streets is very important to a lot of these kids, especially in that 11-to-15 age range.”
Fox says a study by the University of Wisconsin at Madison showed that children who have a history of abuse and neglect were able to identify threats in faces earlier and with fewer cues than other children. “They are obviously growing up in environments where they need to be very tuned,” he says. “They see the environment as a threatening place, compared with children who do not grow up in that environment.”
When children become hyper-vigilant, it works to their disadvantage in the classroom.
“If you’re a more hyper-vigilant child and you’re detecting threats all the time in your environment,” Fox says, “you’re not going to be able to pay as much attention to what the teacher’s telling you as the child who has not had that exposure and can sustain their attention toward the teacher and toward the lessons that are going on in the classroom.”
Unlike an adult caught in a harrowing situation, children can’t always flee or fight, so sometimes they withdraw inside themselves, says Norwood J. Coleman Jr., clinical supervisor for the Community Development-Community Policing program. Withdrawn children might be noticed less often than children who act out, but they are no less affected, he says.
Wilmington Police Chief Michael Szczerba says children don’t have to be directly exposed to criminal violence to feel its effects. “They see the mannerisms, the way people speak to each other, even if they don’t directly witness violence where someone’s injured,” Szczerba says. “The police deal with the end result of what’s established years or decades before a trigger is ever pulled.”
More than 6 percent of Delaware children said they carried a gun at least once in the last 30 days, according to a 2009 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and almost 8 percent reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property at least once in the past 30 days.
“Well, I’m not a psychiatrist and I’m not a psychologist, but I used to tell them, ‘These kids need help,’ ’’ says Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker. “They don’t know why they have this problem, but they’re angry people and angry people act out. We really need to inject into their lives the minute we see them in trouble. Somebody needs to connect with that child right away. We aren’t doing all that.”
“The most important thing is to provide children with a sense of safety and security that they’re not going to be harmed, and the people that they trust and love are also not going to be harmed,” Fox says. “That’s sometimes a tall order, but [it’s] the kind of buffering that can reduce anxiety and hyper-vigilance in a young child.”
Sean Anderson’s father, Darrell, provided that support for him last June, after their upstairs neighbor was shot in the face as he answered the door. When the neighbor’s wife came running downstairs screaming, eight-year-old Sean was home.
Turning his mouth down into his golf shirt and dropping his voice, the boy mumbles that he was sad and scared by the episode. Although his family still lives in the building, he says he hasn’t been scared since then, however, because his dad explained that the intruder was able to enter the building because some doors did not have locks. Locks have since been installed.
When Nicasio Rojas and Maximiliano Juarez were shot to death on their Franklin Street porch on Halloween night, their young children were buffered, too—surrounded by loving family members and their mothers, who sought pointers from their elementary school guidance counselor.
Relatives told the children their fathers were in heaven, working for God. “What they did in life was they installed siding, so they think they’re doing that in heaven now,” said family friend Cara Williams.
In addition to helping individual children in immediate need and supporting programs that provide safe havens for children, researchers say effective intervention can prevent antisocial behavior, diminished economic productivity and poor mental and physical health.
“The penny we pay on prevention today is going to be worth much more than the pound we pay for that cure,” says Mariann Kenville Moore, director of victim-witness services for Delaware Department of Justice. “We’re just going to have to, as a society, address these things.”
Getting children help is expensive but essential, Mayor Baker warns.
“Otherwise,” he says, “if you think this generation is bad in the inner cities, wait until the next one comes, because they’re learning even worse things.”