It was just another afternoon for Domonique and Monique Ratcliff in March as they left Reavis Elementary school. The twin 17-year-old high school juniors had spent the afternoon mentoring young children in an after-school program.
They headed for the bus stop on 49th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, outside of the school, when gunshots sprayed out of the window of a passing car. The two ducked and began running toward their home a mile away.
Daria Siler is also 17 and a mentor, as well as participant, in the same program. In February she was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting just one block from a different area where the Ratcliff sisters were shot at, this time at a bus stop on 51st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. “I could feel the bullets brushing past me,” she said.
All three girls experienced the physical and emotional impact of witnessing violence on Chicago’s streets: the crying, nausea and headaches, they said.
Exposure to guns and gun violence is common for adolescents in some of Chicago’s violence-plagued neighborhoods on the South and West sides. What’s not common is the number of facilities available to help the youth cope.
“If there aren’t a lot of resources people don’t have a lot of choices,” said Brad Stolbach, a clinical psychologist at La Rabida Children’s Hospital on the city’s South Side. To help youth, workers use what’s called a trauma-focused approach, where clinicians treat the underlying issue or event that caused the trauma, and the other factors in a child’s life that helped shape the reaction to the trauma.
Stolbach works mostly with children under the age of 12 at the hospital, which is based in an area of the city he calls a “trauma desert,” an area lacking adequate medical facilities. In the case of adolescents, he says, “They’re probably not getting care.”
Programs to work through the trauma and to address the roots of violence are lacking, particularly for teens. One in four children experience some sort of trauma before they reach adulthood, according to a report from the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. But not all exposure to trauma leads to a mental illness or disorder, said Gene Griffin of Northwestern University’s Mental Health Services and Policy Program.
Twenty percent of adolescents have a diagnosable mental disorder, but 70 percent of those young people do not get the care they need, according to a report from the National Center for Children in Poverty.
At least one area organization is trying to address this on Chicago’s West Side. The Urban Youth Trauma Center, which is part of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Psychiatry, has expanded its mental health services after receiving $1.8 million in additional funding in 2009 from the federal government. Between 2003 and 2007, the center served about 600 clients aged 6 to 16. With the additional funding, the center is training other providers in its approach and has increased its on-site capacity to see up to 30 adolescent-aged patients at a time instead of smaller groups of 20. Ninety-five percent of the program recipients are low income and from communities of color.
The program’s goal is to help children with existing psychiatric disorders and prevent problems from escalating, said Jaleel Abdul-Adil, one of the center’s directors. Teens are referred to the center by schools, social workers or parents. What a teacher or authority figure might see as aggressive, explosive or disrespectful actions could actually be a child’s way of coping with witnessing or being part of gun violence or other social problems.
Abdul-Adil and Liza Suarez, who is also a director at the center, take an innovative approach toward working with children in a high-risk community—a significant number of whom are traumatized repeatedly by gun violence. The clinic also uses a trauma-focused approach to their interventions with children, or what Abdul-Adil calls “an ecological approach,” to understanding the world in which the adolescents live.
“We don’t dismiss the surrounding ecology,” Abdul-Adil said of his effort to understand how teenagers’ friends, family and teachers influence their life and decisions either positively or negatively. This helps teens connect with young adults, helps them learn to cope and change their behavior. Ultimately, he hopes that the program can prevent future violence.
Abdul-Adil said the approach is working. “A vast majority if given opportunities will respond positively,” he said. For an adolescent this would be in addition to learning to manage emotions, doing well in school, both academically and socially, and participating—even excelling—in mainstream community activities, such as athletics, creative arts and community service.
For Siler and the Ratcliffs, getting help right away might have prevented a psychiatric disorder. The Bronzeville teens get weekly counseling services to help them cope with traumatic experiences through Stand Up! Help Out!, a program linked to Loyola University Chicago and its School of Social Work. In the program, the girls also have the opportunity to mentor younger students.
Siler said she believes she can channel her negative experiences into something positive—helping other children. She organized a violence prevention workshop at her high school, King College Prep. Gun violence “shouldn’t be a part of everyday life,” she said. “That’s not something you should get used to.”
The teens from Stand Up! Help Out! do what they can to stay out of harm’s way, such as not hanging out in their neighborhoods unless they are going to and from school. They prefer to be at their friends’ houses or visiting relatives, like the Ratcliffs’ great grandmother. Even when children and parents are vigilant about safety, gun violence is almost impossible to avoid. As Rachel Kibblesmith, the program director of Stand Up! Help Out! puts it, “It’s a chronic thing.” But she’s optimistic that the youth can overcome their situations. “Kids have a high level of resilience,” she added.