Experts who work with children affected by gun violence say coverage lacks nuance

Kathryn Bocanegra, assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, listening to panelist Arturo Carrillo, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., director of health and violence prevention at Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. (Photo by Erica Tricarico)

Law enforcement officials frequently mischaracterize perpetrators and victims of gun violence, resulting in news headlines and soundbites that sometimes obscure the toll it takes on very young people.

That was the broad message from experts on the “What exposure to chronic violence — especially among children — does to human health” panel at Reporting on Violence as a Public Health Issue: An AHCJ Summit in Chicago.

“When you’re exposed to trauma and high levels of stress, your body is actually surging with cortisol hormones and adrenaline hormones. Those are toxic to brain development,” said panelist Theresa Valach, clinical director of the Chicago Child Trauma Center at La Rabida Children’s Hospital. “You become delayed in many areas … You develop maladaptive coping behaviors. And you may not sleep; you may end up living your life in a fight-flight-freeze state — just trying to protect yourself and be safe.”

The results, social worker Valach added, may include overeating, sleep disruptions and other dysfunctions that can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses linked to chronic exposure to violence.

Adding insult to injury, some news coverage overgeneralizes about children hurt or killed in shootings.

“‘My son was not a gangbanger,’” said University of Illinois social work professor and community-based mental health clinician Kathryn Bocanegra, quoting some parents whose offspring were killed or injured. “’He was more than someone on felony parole, who was on this corner and was shot’ … You’re adding to the trauma that exists for the family of a loved one” when relatives of violence victims are not sufficiently allowed to contribute to the news narrative.

“The police statement becomes fact,” added social worker Arturo Carillo, director of health and violence prevention at Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “We hear very much that there are competing narratives of what occurred.”

Research has shown that police department gang databases are inaccurate, added Bocanegra: “That experience has been typeset for them in three paragraphs that may not reflect the facts of the case … These stories have a tremendous afterlife.”

Bruce Stamps of the University of Chicago Medicine Urban Health Initiative said violence recovery specialists like him — tapped because of their own lived experience with violence — are critical to addressing the needs and expanding the narrative for journalists but also the medical institutions treating violence victims. Among other interventions, he and his colleagues gather information relating to crime scenes and violence victims from EMS, Stamps said. He and others in his cohort interact with clinicians and with the kin of victims, connecting “them to our trauma team … Otherwise, they have to wait an agonizing amount of time to get information as simple as ‘Hey, he’s ok.’”

He continued: “Families come in anxious … They’re fearful, they’re impatient. They feel like they don’t have any control over anything … The violence recovery team is there to eliminate that, right from the jump.”

Harming the helpers

Researcher Bocanegra, who spent eight years as a community clinician, has been investigating the toll of violence on clinicians and anti-violence workers such as Stamps. “There are also these people in helping positions who are at that interface as well,” she said, “people who are working in hospitals, people who are working in community-based settings.”

Those community programs, she added, include Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded Cure Violence and Communities Partnering 4 Peace, a restorative justice-based anti-violence endeavor. Grassroots violence interventionists like Stamps, Bocanegra said, “are overly exposed to these forms of violence, to gun violence, to arriving at homicide scenes. On top of that, they have their histories before coming into those professional roles. What toll does that take on them?”

They are, she added, “criminalized professionals, called ‘thugs with a job’” by some law enforcement and health professionals, who refuse to recognize the pivotal roles they play in health care and in stemming the tide of violence. “That form of stigma … has a tremendous impact on them as violence reduction specialists and on their overall wellness.” 


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