Hartford reworks youth trauma effort on a shoestring budget
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — As a child of the North End of Hartford, Yahaira Escribano learned to always duck at the sound of bullets, an instinct that saved her and her nephews one July day in 2011 during a drive-by shooting in front of her Martin Street home.
Playing in her backyard, the high school freshman hit the ground with the nephews, then sent the boys running to her house as she stood and saw the body of her 24-year-old neighbor Angel. A woman, Angel’s mother, was shaking him, hitting him, screaming at him to wake up. Escribano had no instincts for this, the sight of the gunshot wound to Angel’s head or his staring eyes, or how his face would haunt her for the next six years until she finally sought help.
Now, in an age of mental health and trauma awareness, the city of Hartford is trying to intervene at the moment young people are first impacted by violence, and ease their long-term suffering with long-term support.
Hartford’s new effort, the Rapid Response Protocol, evaluates the needs of youth, families and communities directly after they’re involved or impacted by shootings and other violent crimes, not only victims, perpetrators and witnesses but their family members. A new civilian employee with the Hartford Police Department, juvenile specialist Manny Maldonado, marshals about 15 organizations and agencies to deploy whatever resources are needed.
“A lot of families might not be ready to get help, so you just build a connection and see where they’re at,” said Maldonado, who’s spent nine years working with underserved populations in Hartford. “If they have a need they want to be met, you start there and later you can make that connection to services.”
The goal is to create a seamless intervention.
“We can’t afford to let kids slip through the cracks, and we can’t let hurt people keep hurting people,” says participant Jacquelyn Santiago, chief operating officer of the Hartford nonprofit Compass Youth Collaborative. “So this is what this system does: It says, ‘I’m sorry we weren’t able to prevent this situation, but here is something that might be able to help in the aftermath. You’re not alone.’”
Maldonado brings experience as a clinician and counselor to the new role. His salary of $52,177 is the only funding for the program, a fraction of the $1.3 million the city had proposed spending last year on a broader, technology-powered plan to support children traumatized by shootings.
That original plan was devised for Bloomberg Philanthropy’s 2018 Mayor’s Challenge, which named Hartford a finalist. It involved using information from ShotSpotter, the acoustic gunshot detection system, to identify children who may have been exposed to gunfire, then assessing them for trauma.
This is not that, participants acknowledged. The new, narrower effort, which started in February with Maldonado’s hire, relies on police officers and anti-violence workers to report when a young person is on the periphery of a shooting, as opposed to a victim, perpetrator or their family member.
Escribano, now 23 and an intern for the scholarship program Hartford Promise, questions whether this approach would have helped her after that 2011 shooting. Without resources or support, she says she became numb, withdrawn and angry, and remained distrustful of police, none of whom offered her family help.
“Thank God that wasn’t me or my nephews (killed), but I still felt guilt. I just felt senseless and weak, and I couldn’t do anything,” Escribano said. “My mom was in shock and was heartbroken. We were sad, but the reaction was, ‘There’s nothing really we can do. Just another shooting, just another person.’
“That fact is, it’s so normalized. It’s so toxic and so scary. Looking back, that’s no way to grow up. That’s no way to live in an environment.”
Under the new protocol, Maldonado will act anytime someone under 25 is involved in a shooting or stabbing. The team of school officials, nonprofits and social services and public safety agencies will identify the young person’s immediate needs, which organization will address those needs and whether the family and neighborhood at large need any support.
The different parties continue to follow up over the next week, and again within six weeks. That long-term support is still necessary even if a family accepts help right away, Santiago says. In her experience, it takes at least four years for kids to turn away and move on from street life, especially in communities riddled with poverty and lack of opportunity, she said.
“That’s not an easy fix,” Santiago said. “This is the only way they know to be true. This is the only method in their brains. Those pathways don’t necessarily just go away.
“We have to saturate them with as much positivity and as much opportunity as we can to make sure they take the right path instead of the wrong path, and that takes time to teach.”
The city began working on the new protocol last spring, but it was still being pieced together when 17-year-old Karlonzo Taylor was gunned down Dec. 5, in a narrow landing on the second floor of his Park Street apartment building.
So without a road map, they jumped into action.
Within 24 hours, Mayor Luke Bronin’s chief of staff Thea Montanez called a meeting of youth service workers to organize the response. They designated a single point of contact for Taylor’s family and helped relocate his mother to other housing so she wouldn’t have to keep walking through the hallway where her son was killed.
They sent clinicians to the nearby Park Street library, where neighbors could talk about what they had seen or heard. And Compass Peacebuilders approached two teen boys who were already on their radar before the shooting, in which one was wounded and the other traumatized by what he witnessed.
The group helped connect their families to mental health services, but what the boys really wanted was to participate in a youth employment program. Our Piece of the Pie got them working with the city’s Youth Service Corps, a paid service learning program, and introduced them to mentors from another Connecticut street violence prevention group, Project Longevity.
“It’s not enough just to hand a young person an appointment card or a referral and recommend they seek services,” Montanez said. “A big part of this is following up.”
Months later, the teens are part of a small mentorship group, called Triumph. Project Longevity’s statewide coordinator, Brent Peterkin, says they spent the first few months building relationships with the boys, taking them out to eat, supporting them with legal issues, seeing the new Spider-Man movie.
It seems to be working.
“We went from visiting kids in their homes to them calling us now to check in and let us know how they’re doing,” Peterkin said. “When you see a young person take initiative to reach out to you, that means they have now welcomed you in.”
Now, they’re starting to focus on dealing with conflict and coming of age as men of color.
The protocol has been used three more times since Maldonado started work, most recently last week when a 19-year-old was injured in a shooting on Garden Street.
In the first two cases, the young people involved in the incidents were also implicated in a crime and taken to jail. Neither accepted Maldonado’s offer of support.
But one of their family members did — a brother, 21 years old, who was staying out of trouble and looking for a path to a better life. The response team learned he wanted to earn his high school diploma and become a commercial driver, so they’re helping move him along.
“What we find is a lot of guys don’t have an ID or a driver’s license,” Peterkin said. “Something like that can be very impactful in terms of saying, ‘Now I have something. Now I’m legit. Now I can access other things.’”
Nonprofits add that they were already doing this work, just as Hartford police were already meeting weekly to discuss at-risk youth, and the schools were already improving their mental health care.
But the new process is getting everyone talking to each other for the first time, says Kim Oliver, director of the city Department of Families, Children, Youth and Recreation.
“We’ve been trying to do this for a bit, and it wasn’t always coordinated, to be honest,” she said. “If we want people to grow into thriving adults, this is what we have to do. We won’t be a vibrant city and a thriving city without them.”
Escribano, a public policy graduate student at UConn, says she remains skeptical. She’s seen too many well-meaning Hartford efforts fall short of their goals.
“In theory, you might have these amazing ideas to offer support services for people who feel these kinds of trauma. And then there’s actually implementing it,” she said. “Just in my experience, there’s always a huge gap between those things.”
Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com