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How a team delved into childhood trauma in New Orleans Date: 06/27/19

By Emily Willingham

“The Children of Central City” series tracked the fates of 9- and 10-year-old black children living in New Orleans, in one of the city’s most violence-torn areas. The series won third place in the public health (small) category in the 2018 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism.

In following the lives of these boys participating in a youth football team, Times-Picayune staff – Jonathan Bullington, Richard A. Webster, Emma Scott, Brett Duke, Haley Correll – sought also to look into the minds of these children, examining how exposure to trauma can change the function of their brains. Awareness of how adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, affect the arcs of our lives is growing, along with research into their effects, how to prevent these exposures, and what to do for those who are exposed.

As the Times-Picayune team shows in searing detail, these boys can’t avoid exposure to trauma. A fifth of them have seen someone killed and almost half of them have witnessed acts of extreme physical aggression. After these psychic injuries, the boys face insult after insult from a system that turns away from what they need, with budget cuts to programs that might help them, a lack of consistent, good educational opportunities, and difficulty accessing understanding or care for the emotional and mental dysfunction such exposures can cause.

The series starts with “The Children of Central City,” which describes, among other experiences of these boys, one whose mother was killed in their kitchen while he and his brother slept. Central City, where these boys live, is vibrant and deeply historic but simultaneously violent and pocked with crime and poverty.

In “The 28,” the reporting team homes in on the experience of Jerome Temple, a coach whose binder contains a record of the trauma of this neighborhood: a list of 28 players he coached who have died in the years he’s been a coach. In just the last year, three of his former players were shot to death. Temple asks the question at the heart of this series: “We know who’s going to be killed, who’s going to do the killing. It’s just a matter of time,” he says. “If we don’t support these kids, do everything we can, we know what’s going to happen. So why do we let it?”

The Science of Trauma” looks at exposure to violence in childhood as a toxin, like lead, that if persistent can lead to permanently altered brain states. Heavy metals affect cognition, while chronic trauma affects mental health — how people react emotionally and physically to life. As one source in this piece notes, this cycle of trauma begets a cycle of violence, creating psychologically unsafe communities. “If we treated trauma in children, we would create communities that have psychological safety,” she notes.

But getting the treatment can pose an insurmountable problem, as the reporting team unpacks in “In Desperate Need.” Stigma, money, services availability and access all conspire to keep treatment away from these children who need it so badly. As the two parts of “Students in Peril” elaborate, their one possible daily touchstone of tradition and known expectations — their schools — also can be more sieves than safety nets. As educators scramble to do as much as possible with limited resources, children slip through and away. Flashes of hope exist in the form of local groups doing their best to make trauma-informed care available to these children at school.

A Family Team” looks at how the community at the individual and family level is working to shore up the children on the Panthers football team. Anxious relatives seek a just-right combination of wisdom to impart, to mitigate the community’s trauma by bringing their own learning to bear. In addition to the violence and poverty that the neighborhood faces daily, the community is still trying to recover from the aftermath of Katrina, which broke up families and destabilized the neighborhood even more. A slideshow offers readers a chance to meet the current players on the team.

The odds that a drug dealer will avoid prison or death are one in a million, middle-school teacher Brennan Jacques tells his students at a school in Treme. In “One in a Million,” the series ends on a hint of how things could be, profiling Jacques, one of those in the million who survived. He was sent to prison for cocaine possession with intent to distribute. Two of his brothers died by gun violence, and two others also were sent to prison, for violent crimes. This final installment of the series looks at the turning points in Jacques life and how he tries to use his experiences to reroute boys like he once was to a different path. An inmate where Jacques was imprisoned succeeded in doing that with him, and Jacques, who once himself was a Panther in the youth football program, works every day to pay that forward.

With their contest entry, the staff completed a questionnaire that described their series and how they followed the paths of these boys from their participation in youth football to their encounters with trauma and systematic obstacles. Below is a lightly edited version of the questions and answers they provided. This series was enabled by funding from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

What types of documents, data, or Internet resources did the team use? Were FOI or public records act requests required? How did this affect the work?

We searched online to research trauma and trauma-informed approaches used in cities and schools across the country. We analyzed state department of education data on suspension rates in Central City public schools, and requested historical crime data from the New Orleans Police Department to add context to a story about the violence the team’s coach and his wife witnessed growing up in Central City. To get a sense of how often children in Central City could be exposed to violence, we analyzed New Orleans police call service logs. We took one year of service calls and filtered out every call placed from outside Central City, then selected a handful of crime categories and built an animated map that showed the accumulation of a sampling of more than 3,000 calls to 911 in one year from within Central City.

What were your human sources for this story, which were so numerous, and how did you have the kind of access that allowed for the images and details you reported?

Two reporters worked on this project for the better part of a year, four months of which were spent working out of a temporary office at a community center in Central City. A photographer and a videographer worked for several months on the project. During that time, we embedded with the A.L. Davis Park Panthers youth football team, attending every practice and game. We interviewed coaches, players, their families, former players and coaches. We also interviewed a broad range of experts on the science of trauma and its medical impact. We also spoke with school leaders, nonprofits providing trauma-related treatment, and government officials responsible for overseeing health services.

What impacts has this series had on the local community?

Less than two months after the series published, the New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for a comprehensive, citywide approach to the prevention, intervention and treatment of childhood trauma. The resolution ordered the New Orleans Children and Youth Planning Board to present to the council – no later than Aug. 1, 2019 – recommendations to increase mental health care services for children, as well as the identification of funding sources to pay for those services, and changes to city policy and laws required to implement its recommendations. The City Council also unanimously approved a resolution imploring all schools to build and implement trauma-informed systems to promote the well-being of children. In addition, several nonprofit organizations that are part of the United Way network, and a few for-profit entities like the New Orleans Saints, have made contact to identify ways in which they can help the team and/or Central City organizations featured in our reporting. Finally, the series has ignited a public conversation, including some state officials and legislators, about ways to improve trauma-informed services.

What advice do you have for journalists who might be working on or planning a similar project with similar sensitivities?

The members of our reporting team were all white. Given that we were going into a largely African-American neighborhood – one with historic ties to the city’s Civil Rights’ movement as well as its cultural heritage – we didn’t want to start with preconceived notions about the story. We wanted to be sure to allow the community to guide our reporting. To that end, for the first few weeks we met with community leaders to hear what they had to say. What were their concerns? What were the mistakes made by previous reporters? What did they think we should focus on? These off-the-record discussions proved invaluable to our work and generated trust and investment within the community. They also led us to the volunteer coaches at A.L. Davis Park, and the realization that their youth football team perfectly encapsulated the promise and challenges of Central City.