This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community.
The city of Oakland is in the process of developing what it says will be a comprehensive crime reduction program. Part of this program includes Operation Ceasefire, the Boston-based violence reduction strategy that focuses on decreasing the number of shootings in a city by targeting the people most responsible. While both of these are valuable and laudable goals, they are only partial solutions.
I have said it before, but I think it bears repeating now: Community violence is a public health issue and should be treated as such. A growing body of scientific evidence is showing this to be the case, and many of America's leading violence prevention experts increasingly agree that until a shift in attitude takes place, mere crime reduction efforts will always fall short.
I recently spoke to Deborrah Bremond, a specialist in the relatively new area of infant mental health, and a longtime child development specialist associated with Oakland's Children's Hospital. Bremond points out that in Alameda County, 7,000 kids a year are born into poverty. She estimates that roughly 35,000 kids under age 6 are living in poverty at any given time. And yet there are fewer than 200 people doing childhood developmental assessments for that entire population. If each case worker has 10 cases on average, only about 2,000 of those kids are getting services.
"The earlier we can get to kids showing needs, the greater the chance of making changes, and the greater those changes are," Bremond told me recently. "Ninety percent of our brain development occurs in the first five years of life, and those connections last through adulthood, so it's a critical period. If we miss that period, the brain is less plastic and less able to develop new connections. That critical period shapes the hard wiring, the brain chemistry and the actual structure of the brain."
To illustrate her point, Bremond told me a story. After several years away from doing field work in Oakland, she recently returned to her former passion. Along with a clinician from Children's Hospital, she went to Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, where she met a Mexican immigrant woman living in one room on the bottom level of a house with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. The kitchen was outside underneath the house deck. She was getting electricity from another source. She had to put plastic bags around the bottom of the deck so that the food wouldn't get wet.
"I walk in, and I think to myself, 'Where the hell am I?'" she told me. "I feel like I'm in some Third World country, but I'm in Fruitvale. So here I am, looking at this boy, and the clinician thinks he's mentally disturbed, but I take one look at him, and I see he's incredibly depressed, like his mother's depressed."
But the mother told Bremond that she liked the arrangement. It was within easy walking distance of her work as a house cleaner. Bremond then learned that the mother had been a victim of domestic abuse. The child, in turn, was acting out at school, hitting other kids, being aggressive, withdrawn and uncommunicative. The mother reported being scared of her 4-year-old, believing he was out to attack her, much the way her former abuser had.
"His mother would say he's doing what his dad did to me," Bremond said. "She felt like he was attacking her. So there are the beginnings of the intergenerational transmission of violence."
The kid was placed into the 0-5 program. But Bremond says he has a long way to go.
"How do you help people to recover from that? What happens? It's no surprise that people are dying from heart attacks, because it's all tied together. The systems need to be better coordinated and make it simpler for families to get what they need. Families are way more complicated than when I started doing this work. The social environment is more deteriorated. I get really sad thinking about the parents in Newtown, about babies being murdered, but do you realize there's a war going on in Oakland? There's a war going on, and you become numb. That's what's happening in the community; it's just constant."
The best and most effective way to deal with violence like this is to take a step back, think about it as a disease that is spreading throughout the community, and then take action, much like a doctor or infectious disease specialist might.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org