Healing childhood trauma from gun violence in Watts

April 2, 2019
Ryan Imondi

At just two square miles, Watts is one of Los Angeles’ smallest neighborhoods – showing up as a blip on the sprawling 500 square mile footprint of the city. Yet with a median annual income of $25,000 and five large housing developments, Watts is a small community dealing with large issues when it comes to violence and trauma.

Watts has dealt with decades of high crime rates and frequent gun violence. Multiple generations have grown up in a neighborhood where the rattling bang of a gunshot has been a regular occurrence and the risk of a family member or friend being targeted or hit by a stray bullet is a real threat. During the span of one week in late March 2019, a total of 26 shootings with 10 fatalities took place across Los Angeles, with multiple incidents in Watts.

Minimizing the impact of gun violence is what a new initiative at Children’s Institute is working toward. Known as The REACH TEAM, CII is partnering with the LA City Attorney’s Office and LAPD to respond to gun violence by expanding access to crucial intervention and counseling services for children in Watts.

“Gun violence is so present in these neighborhoods,” said Eztli Herrera, Care Coordinator on The REACH TEAM. “We don’t want to minimize how traumatic this is and act like it’s normal.”

Residents in Watts have endured decades of gun violence that has caused generational trauma and toxic stress.

Prior to joining CII, Herrera worked in schools around South LA. She said she saw a lot of nervousness and anxiety tied to gun violence whenever the topic came up around students.

At one point, she remembers a group of students swapping details about a time they had a gun pulled on them after school. Other times they talked about having few options for walking home safely where there would be a lower potential of encountering somebody with a gun.

Deputy City Attorney Lara Drino said that in environments where gun violence is prevalent, children are likelier to intersect with violent crimes as adults. After hearing about these outcomes at the Watts Gang Task Force meetings in and around Watts, Drino said she saw an opportunity to increase mental health resources as a way to help children in Watts heal from trauma.

Without counseling services, exposure to gun violence can have damaging results that last throughout adulthood. Viewed as a toxic stress, children can develop symptoms like post-traumatic stress disorder that impact brain development and physical health. Academic achievement, professional success and family stability are all negatively impacted as well.

Watch the Spectrum News story on The REACH TEAM

It is essential that children who have already experienced gun violence have access to counseling and support services. These services can help them heal from past trauma and give them the tools and resources to navigate future dangers. Drino said she also sees The REACH TEAM connecting kids with other community-based initiatives like after-school programs that keep children away from gang activity.

“If we can intervene in these kids’ lives early and get them on a different trajectory with positive mental health, hopefully we can keep them out of the criminal justice system as either a victim or a suspect,” Drino said.

The REACH TEAM wouldn’t be complete without LAPD who provides background on neighborhood dynamics around housing developments while also sharing immediate updates whenever there are reports of shots being fired in Watts. This work is overseen by Lieutenant Gena Brooks of LAPD, who is also on CII’s Board of Trustees.

CII’s Clinical Program Manager Ginger Lavender-Wilkerson with The REACH TEAM members Deputy City Attorney Lara Drino and LAPD Lieutenant Gena Brooks.

“Normally when we respond, we’re looking for the victim to take care of, for the suspect, to take them in to custody, and we’re walking by all these little casualties of war who have seen it, and what we realize now is that hurt people hurt others,” Lt. Brooks said.

While Herrera handles the day-to-day work of implementing the strategies of the program, Clinical Program Manager Ginger Lavender-Wilkerson, LMFT, oversees the team along with Maria Reyes, who provides counseling and therapy and helps with outreach.

Based out of CII’s Watts Campus, The REACH TEAM goes out into the community and responds when shots are fired. Whenever LAPD informs The REACH TEAM of a shooting, the group moves into the area to find kids who may have seen or heard the gun shots. They talk to community leaders and neighbors to understand who exactly has been affected.

When they learn about a child who has witnessed gun violence, they reach out to the family with a care package that includes a teddy bear and other items designed to help a child relax. The team then works with the family to set up short-term counseling. As children access services, assessments are made around longer-term therapy and support groups. In some cases, it may take more than a month for the signs of trauma to appear so the team checks back in with families who may have initially declined services.

If we can intervene in these kids’ lives early and get them on a different trajectory with positive mental health, hopefully we can keep them out of the criminal justice system as either a victim or a suspect.

Reyes said children have shared with her that it feels good to know they now have a place to go if they need support.

“The REACH TEAM has helped kids understand it’s okay to talk about how they’re feeling or what they’re going through,” Reyes said. “This work is going to dictate the health of the next generation in Watts.”

When designing The REACH TEAM, Lavender-Wilkerson said it was crucial for them to go out and meet residents to better understand their needs. She said mental health resources can carry a stigma in Watts where people most likely won’t utilize these services unless the team was knocking at their door and following up with them. She said this is a unique and proactive approach that is time-intensive, but will likely determine the initiative’s eventual success.

CII's initiative to prevent trauma from gun violence
The REACH TEAM at CII includes Maria Reyes, Yvette Martinez, Eztli Herrera, and Ginger Lavender-Wilkerson.

“While counseling is focused on children, she said the team’s outreach is geared toward helping the whole family. In most cases, she said parents and other family members have also grown up around gun violence and deal with these dangers on a daily basis. They too have experienced trauma and need outlets to heal.

“Parents are affected by this as well,” she said. “Many don’t recognize their own trauma, because they’ve accepted gun violence as a regular thing.”

The REACH TEAM is focused on partnership at all levels of the community and refers adults to free mental health counselors or support groups like Mothers of Murdered Children. Lavender-Wilkerson said it is essential that the whole family heals from gun violence, not just the children.

The REACH TEAM has helped kids understand it’s okay to talk about how they’re feeling or what they’re going through. This work is going to dictate the health of the next generation in Watts.

When The REACH TEAM isn’t working directly with families affected by a recent shooting, they are out in the community educating groups on the importance of counseling and ways to stay safe in their neighborhood.

Herrera estimates the team attended upwards of 30 meetings in the last few months with different community groups at housing developments, schools and churches. She is frequently picking up the phone or meeting in-person with community leaders.

She said it is important for The REACH TEAM to be an active part of the Watts community. She wants residents to know she and her team members are a resource, whether it is a question about the best route home from school or the benefits of accessing counseling after a traumatic event.

Herrera said it is important to let people know they aren’t alone. They have a whole network of people here to help them.

While the program has only been in place since September 2018, Drino said she is already seeing results that point to this being an essential program to helping Watts heal from decades of gun violence. If this program is successful, Drino said she can see it expanding to other parts of South LA that face similar challenges.

Last month, The REACH TEAM held the first workshop in what will be a series of courses designed to give kids important tools for avoiding gun-related traumas. A group of 20-plus kids listened intently as the team went over the long-term effects of trauma and how counseling can help. The kids were appreciative and optimistic about the guidance they were receiving.

For Herrera, this was another reminder that The REACH TEAM is approaching gun violence in a unique way. Classes like these, in addition to the other work being implemented, highlight the evolution of community support and trauma that differed from when she first started in the neighborhood. The last few months have been a positive first step in what will hopefully be a successful campaign to heal Watts after decades of struggling against gun violence.

“We want to continue a dialogue and start the healing process,” Herrera said. “We’re reaching out and we’re really trying to make a difference.”

CII is working to help children affected by gun violence