Healing the Children of Violence

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Photo by Alejandro Hernandez via Flickr


Officer Carlos Conceicao’s knocks elicited barks from inside the two-story house.

“Who’s that dog making all that noise?” he asked as a woman let him inside from the 19-degree cold. Rodney Webb, a clinician from Yale University, followed with a notebook under his arm.

Though they come from separate worlds — law enforcement and clinical studies — Conceicao and Webb are partners.

They interrupted the woman’s dinner prep as her young daughter did homework. The woman’s husband wasn’t home. He had moved out after a violent fight with his wife.

Days later, Webb and Conceicao knocked on the door to check in — to see if the girl is having nightmares, to hear how she is behaving in school, to find out if her grades have been slipping. They interrupted dinner, however brief, to hear if maybe the little girl slips into Mom’s bed at night because she is scared.

They are checking in on the victims.

The important word is victims, not victim. In New Haven CT, a city of 130,000, the children, even if not physically harmed, need just as much healing.

And they get it.

Caring to the needs of children of violence is as important as arresting the violent offender, New Haven police believe. As part of its “Behind Broken Doors” series exploring the effects of domestic violence, the Caller-Times spent three days in New Haven to examine how a collaboration between the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center and the New Haven Department of Police Services helps children exposed to violence.

“We’re pretty tough-skinned, but when it comes to children … It just really breaks your heart — it just really does — in a million pieces,” Conceicao said.

Pairing cops and clinicians has led to a cultural change in the department. The way officers police their community has shifted from an old school catch-and-arrest mentality to a people’s police with a social worker component.

“We see ourselves as psychiatrists with guns and a badge,” Conceicao said.

Unfinished Business

Long after the arrest is made or a fight has ended, an officer thinks about the child in that home. An unsatisfied feeling, a feeling of unfinished business, often sticks with the officer, New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman said.

Before the early 1990s, the New Haven Department of Police Services was almost solely 911- driven. Police went from call to call and a victim was considered the person wheeled out on a stretcher. Children may have been nearby, but officers didn’t know what to do. The next call was waiting. Police needed help.

Esserman, a former federal prosecutor in New York, vividly remembers seeing the children in the aftermath of a family violence killing that occurred when he was assistant police chief in 1991. Officers had propped the children on the bed and turned on the TV.

“We just wanted to keep them occupied, and we wanted to make sure their feet were not running in the blood,” Esserman said, but he remembers thinking at the time that police needed to cast a wider net on who is considered a “victim.”

“(Children) too are victims. They too are wounded. They too need help to recover,” Esserman said.

[At the time, the New Haven department was just beginning its strategy of community policing, where officers are instructed in a more sympathetic approach than the traditional strong-arm law enforcement style. Today, new officers are assigned to walk their beat for 1-2 years before they have a chance at driving a patrol car—with the aim being to develop close relationships with neighborhood residents. ]

[But there was gap between the approach of clinicians and police in approaching how children are affected by violent incidents. The clinicians cared about the resulting trauma on child development. The police focused on how child victims often become offenders or adult victims. As a result of discussions between both sides, the city developed the Child Development-Community Policing program, which has to this day treated more than 20,000 families and children.]

Then-police chief Nicolas Pastore was met with skeptics and critics when he introduced his  new [community policing strategy], including from his own brass. Within a year, about 100 officers either retired or resigned. Pastore believes the departures were mostly because they didn’t like his approach. He pushed on and brought in more women, minorities and people from outside police work. For example, his training director was a Yale University educated feminist and lesbian who majored in theater. Esserman was also part of Pastore’s new hires.

Raising Cops’ Credibility

….Pastore knew his initiative was working when gang and family members started tipping police off to crime. And though certain crime stats seem to indicate community policing works, Pastore said that isn’t how he measured its success.

“I knew by the level of credibility citizens had for police that it was working. Statistics can be played with,” Pastore said.

New Haven had 34 murders in 1991 when Pastore launched community policing. The numbers fell until about 20 years later when new leadership moved away from the philosophy. In 2011, there were again 34 homicides. The city had 12 homicides in 2014, after Esserman reinforced community policing.

Still, the city struggles with violent crime. In 2013, the city’s violent crime rate was 384 incidents for every 100,000 residents, according to FBI data. Corpus Christi has 524 violent crime incidents per 100,000 residents.

New Haven’s statistics would be worse without community policing, Conceicao said, and the method is especially helpful in solving crimes.

Conceicao embodies community policing. Conceicao knows his patrol beat.

He can tell families’ stories. He recognized a mother in a new house by the cereal boxes stacked in her kitchen.

“I used to go to her house all the time because her two older teens used to always run away,” Conceicao said.

Many criminals respect him, his colleagues said.

“Once they see him pull up, they’re like ‘Carlos is here.’ They don’t even fight,” Officer Endri Dragoi said.


Waking From a Nightmare

Yale clinicians are taught that a child’s experience with trauma is much like waking up from a nightmare.

They’re jolted from sleep. They’re breathing hard. Their pulse is racing. They might be frozen in fear, said Webb, the Yale clinician.

“But the thing is (adults) go back to sleep, and it’s not so bad. The problem is the kid can’t go back to sleep so they’re reliving those symptoms from day to day to day,” he said.

Once a week, Webb rides with a police officer for about six hours. That connection between clinicians and police is at the heart of the Child Development-Community Policing program. The collaboration also trains officers to detect symptoms of trauma and decide when to connect families with a clinician from Yale.

All cadets in the police academy go through a one-day child development training course at the university. And new clinicians go on frequent ride-alongs with officers.

“We’re learning about each other and teaching each other,” said program director Kristen Kowats said. “Learning about policing is the first thing clinicians do.”

The other part of their role is to respond when an officer calls.

Officers get a better sense the child is being looked out for when a clinician goes to an especially traumatic scene, Sgt. Rene Dominguez said.

Tending to Trauma

Officers get concerned when they’re in a home and a parent is bleeding or cradling an injury and a child is nearby. They worry the child’s trauma won’t be tended to properly. That’s where clinicians come in.

“You leave feeling much better knowing that they’re going to be more attentive to the child,” Dominguez said.

….Though police often tap clinicians to go to a scene, the follow-up home visits are crucial because the situation has calmed and parents are able to focus on what they’re being told. Clinicians can offer information about resources and signs of trauma to be on the lookout for. Officers can talk about the ins and outs of a protective order, Kowats said.

It allows clinicians to get inside the homes to talk to the children and connect the families to the Child Study Center where they can get free services to treat trauma. The most common referrals the center gets stem from domestic violence, sexual assault and community violence, Kowats said.

And it equips officers with tools to better understand child trauma and better react in front of children.

That knowledge has prompted the police policy of avoiding making any arrests in front of kids, Esserman said.

It also allows officers to be judged differently. Families see officers care and aren’t focused on only going to homes to make arrests.

“When a symbol of authority is both powerful and compassionate,” Esserman said, “it can be a force for enormous good.”

Krista Torralva is a staff reporter for the Caller Times in Corpus Christi, TX. This is an abridged version of a story published Feb 27, 2016 as part of a reporting project for her 2015-2016 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Network Violence Reporting Fellowship. The full story and other parts of the series can be accessed HERE. Krista welcomes comments from readers.

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