Trying to break the cycle of violence

November 21, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

You see it all the time in crime stories: "The victim was taken to Shock Trauma ... "

That is where Javaughn Norman Adams, 18, is recovering from wounds received Saturday when - during a fight at the Annapolis mall - he allegedly shot an off-duty Secret Service agent who was trying to break up the melee, and the officer returned fire.

While the mall shooting has generated much attention, Adams' case is another day at the office for one group of staffers at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Meaning, the victims of violence who turn up there generally have been perpetrators of it as well - maybe not seconds earlier, but at some previous point in their lives. That's true about 98 percent of the time, says Dawn Eslinger, who has done the math.

Eslinger directs a unique program at Shock Trauma that tries to break this cycle, from perpetrating crime to becoming a victim of it, and back again. And the Violence Intervention Program has had some success, it was happy to report in a scholarly journal.

By offering more than the patching up of their gunshot, stabbing or beating wounds - counseling, assistance in getting help with substance abuse or finishing their education or finding a job - the VIP team showed that these patients were three times less likely to go on to be arrested for violent crime.

You could look it up - the study was reported in the September issue of The Journal of Trauma - but for me, meeting Adrian Barnes was much more telling.

Tall and imposing - he actually has the word "trouble" tattooed on his neck - Barnes now works for the program that he credits with breaking his own personal cycle of violence.

About eight years ago, he was one of Shock Trauma's typical victims of violence.

"I was out there selling drugs. I wound up being involved in a territorial beef, New York versus Baltimore," Barnes said.

He was shot in the leg, taken to Shock Trauma and, while recovering, was asked if he wanted to participate in a study about violence intervention.

Barnes was 23 and ready for a change. "I was tired," he said, of getting arrested, getting shot at and otherwise living the kind of life on the streets that he'd been living since leaving his mother's house at age 14.

After a couple of setbacks, he was able to get off drugs and was hired four years ago to help others who turn up at Shock Trauma in similar straits.

The program has drawn attention from hospitals in other cities dealing with the same cycle of violence.

Yesterday, in fact, the VIP staff was playing host to Jennifer E. Williams, who was trying to pick up tips for a similar program at the University of Cincinnati.

"We had a pair of trauma surgeons who were tired of patients who were on a first-name basis with them," she said.

That's how VIP started here, with the frustration that medical personnel like Dr. Carnell Cooper, a trauma surgeon, felt operating on and healing victims of crime only to see them return, often repeatedly.

"We were getting these youth back over and over again - with more serious and sometimes fatal injuries," Cooper said.

It occurred to him that for any other disease - like lung cancer, for example - patients would be asked about any behaviors that might have contributed to the problem.

But victims of violence were operated on or stitched up and just sent back to the same environment that brought them to Shock Trauma in the first place.

"What we're dealing with is behavior as well," he said. "It shouldn't be that difficult."

And, in some ways, it wasn't. Eslinger said she was surprised when, recruiting patients for the study, only one person declined the offer of assistance.

"You're in a hospital bed, you're vulnerable," she said. "Your homeys don't come to see you."

Even now, only 20 percent of those who are asked to join the program say no - and sometimes what they mean is, for now.

"When someone comes here the first time, it's sort of a badge of honor," Eslinger said of the gunshot or stabbing scar that the victim will walk out with. "When you get someone who has been here more than once, when you've been back a second time, they're more willing to listen."

And, actually, they're more receptive than the rest of us to this kind of "disease" prevention. Eslinger says the program doesn't have permanent funding, but lives from grant to grant.

"People tend to write off this group - They're inner-city young black males; let's let them keep shooting at each other," she said.

It takes a more spectacular crime to draw attention to the problem, and, sadly, Maryland has had a couple of those recently.

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