We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
It’s a Thursday night in early May at the Barry Farms housing complex on Sumner Road in Southeast. The teenagers huddled on the street corner scatter in various directions when they spot an official-looking white van pulling up to the curb. “They probably think this is a police ‘jump-out’ vehicle,” says social worker Larry Watkins, director of the District’s Youth Trauma team. In no time it’s clear that Watkins and his colleagues in the van are not conducting a criminal roundup. As Watkins steps onto the street, an older teenager approaches him and asks for some condoms. Watkins obliges. Then Watkins and Tom Blagburn, community affairs director for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), staple a sign proclaiming “Peace in the Hood” to a telephone pole. By the time they climb back in the van, there is no one left on the street.
Watkins and Blagburn are volunteers on the District’s Youth Trauma team, which provides treatment and counseling for children who suffer trauma from witnessing bloody crimes. Although the team occasionally tracks down trauma victims, meaningless encounters like the stop at Barry Farms are commonplace on its nighttime tours of D.C.’s high-crime areas. And with its threadbare resources—it has just one paid staffer and almost no additional funding—the team is no match for the District’s street violence, which last year claimed 360 lives and sent thousands of other victims to area hospitals. While the unit’s supporters believe it could bring sanity to troubled District youths, it stands little chance of winning renewed support from the debt-laden D.C. government. It’s an old story with a tendentious ending: Funding is down, violence is steady, and another program is grinding to a halt.
In July 1993, 9-year-old Rachelle Adams stood over her mother’s crumpled body only moments after she had been beaten to death by an unknown attacker. Responding to a police call, the trauma team arrived on the scene moments after the crime and found Rachelle in deep shock. “She said, ‘Mr. Watkins, Mr. Watkins, can you get me a tutor?’” he recalls. Watkins got her the tutor and later got her into counseling.
Mental health experts agree that counseling can save trauma-stricken children like Rachelle from a troubled future. “Children are much more traumatized by events than adults think,” says Dr. Janice Hutchinson, head of the District’s Child and Youth Services Administration, which provides mental health treatment for the city’s children and oversees the trauma van. Around 10 percent of people who witness violence later suffer from a condition known as Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms include nightmares, insomnia, anxiety attacks, and vivid flashbacks. Also, sufferers often exhibit explosive behavior, depression, hypervigilance, and emotional numbness.
PTSD ranks as the most common problem among children who are hospitalized for psychiatric reasons in the District, according to child psychiatrist Dr. William Stage, former director of the children’s ward at St. Elizabeths mental hospital.
Left untreated, PTSD sufferers often become victims or perpetrators of violent crimes, according to Hutchinson. Studies of District teenagers have established a link between PTSD and subsequent brushes with violence, and Hutchinson offers her own anecdotal evidence: All the teenage killers she has treated in her career witnessed either a shooting or a stabbing of someone they knew.
But catching PTSD—a condition with no readily identifiable symptoms—before it ravages its victims is a low-percentage ballgame. “We miss the diagnosis, miss the problem, and when we do intervene, it’s typically too little, too late,” Hutchinson says. Not surprisingly, D.C. boasts the nation’s highest arrest rate for juvenile violent crime.
In 1993, the District launched its mobile trauma unit with hopes of ending the city’s epidemic of child trauma. The unit—the brainchild of Howard University psychologist Hope Hill—thrived on a $125,000 start-up outlay from the District government and the enthusiastic cooperation of the police.
In its first year, the team blanketed Southeast’s 7th Police District, which traditionally posts the city’s highest violent-crime tallies. According to Blagburn, who helped launch the program, the team snatched hundreds of kids from the jaws of PTSD.
The crew even takes partial credit for the 15-percent drop in crime in 7th District housing projects from 1994 to 1995. “We think we’ve made a difference,” Blagburn says.
In 1994, the youth trauma team received a national award for its groundbreaking approach to street violence, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police cited it as one of the most promising programs of its kind in the country. The accolades earned the unit spots on ABC’s Nightline and on CNN.
But the team’s heyday was short-lived and promptly crumbled under the weight of the District’s budget crisis. A series of 1995 budget cuts, which crippled a whole slate of social services, sliced the team’s staff from eight professionals, including two psychiatrists and a handful of licensed social workers, to a single full-timer, social worker Al-Farabi Ishaq. The cuts also took away the program’s morale, fraying the bouncy esprit de corps among police officers and mental health workers. “The problems are so pervasive, it is overwhelming,” Watkins says.
Instead of going out every night, the skeleton team now only goes out in the van a couple of nights a month to do prevention work. When the team does get out, it usually goes without the police protection that was a constant in the unit’s early days. MPD brass never signed an order requiring a police officer to staff the van, and budget cuts have sent officers to other beats. MPD “is lucky to have enough officers to staff its scout cars,” Blagburn says.
On his regular tour of duty, Ishaq makes house calls in the early evening and stands by on call the rest of the night. He only takes the van when he is joined by volunteers, which means most nights he drives an unmarked sedan. When there’s a murder that involves children in any way, he’s called to the scene.
But Ishaq often wonders why the District even bothers with any pretense of solving the city’s trauma problem. First of all, he can’t possibly seek out the District’s trauma victims with one van and no support staff. And with the collapse of the city’s social services, there is no reliable treatment provider for the victims he does find. “When I see kids, I hope they are not traumatized,” Ishaq says. “I hate the thought of them receiving care in D.C.’s mental health system. It’s frightening to think there is no one there to provide help.” Ishaq recalls the riots last March by child patients of St. Elizabeths after the District failed to pay the hospital’s food suppliers. Health care workers were feeding the kids an appalling diet of Jell-O, rice, and gravy.
The bulk of the city’s child and youth mental health care is contracted out, and the Barry administration has allowed a significant number of these contracts to dry up, further shortchanging the city’s kids. To make matters worse, services at the city’s receiving homes, group homes, and juvenile facilities, like Oak Hill in Laurel, Md., where emotionally troubled kids are often sent, are overcrowded and understaffed.
On the last stop of the night, the trauma van pulls into a cul-de-sac in Benning Heights SE. Here, the neighborhood teens recognize the van and continue puffing on a joint as Watkins and Co. step out of the van. The smell of marijuana lingers in the air, and the kids at first ignore the approaching trauma team. Watkins grabs their attention by handing out plain black T-shirts and some health literature. (The team already handed out all three of its condoms at Barry Farms.) But the kids couldn’t care less about the team, its van, and the trauma crusade. So Watkins turns to the nearest telephone pole and posts another “Peace in the Hood” sign.—Julie Wakefield