Summer camp turns into trauma center in Baltimore By Nancy Fenton

Since the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimoreans have worked to address the underlying problems associated with the civil unrest. While city leaders look for solutions, Baltimore's children are bearing the brunt of the heightened turbulence.

In the days immediately following the surge of unrest, our young students in The Club at Collington Square, an after-school and summer camp for at-risk kids, were producing artwork that worried even our most experienced staff member, who has worked with city children for more than 20 years. Over and over, children were creating artwork filled with burning homes and people fighting. This is not just the result of watching a violent movie or having a bad dream. This is the reality of living with the fear of violence in one's own neighborhood.

The past few months have been particularly stressful and frightening for children in Baltimore who live in the areas of increased street violence. This summer, shootings are occurring almost daily in their neighborhoods. They know the people who are involved in these shootings, and they know that the violence is not an anomaly; it is happening over and over again.

For young children, prolonged exposure to violence can actually create stress that can change the physiology of the brain's function. In severe cases, individuals develop difficulties in decision making, mood regulation and memory. For years, Baltimore's social workers, teachers, and nurses have seen how the impact of violence is expressed by very young children; Sudden emotional withdrawal and escalated responses to normal childhood disagreements are signs of an exposure to violence. So is a negative reaction to law enforcement; for these kids, interactions with police are often associated violent and scary situations. From the perspective of a 7-year-old, there is no rhyme or reason for what they experience.

How do you ease the stress that a child experiences when violence is on the street where they live? Our summer camp, a place many of us associate with fun activities and building friendships, has become more of a safe haven from the drug dealing and gun violence that permeates the neighborhood — a place where parents know their children are safe among friends and caring adults. It has become a makeshift trauma care center. Staff members offer children an opportunity to share their experiences and express their feelings through words or art. Some days, otherwise happy children, arrive filled with the stress of an overnight shooting that occurred close to their homes. I am quite certain that the stress seen in our children this summer on the east side of the city is also true of the children living in West Baltimore and wherever prolonged unrest is present.

And though we hope that the violence will ease, we know the impact on Baltimore's children is less likely to disappear. A recent Harvard study "Childhood Trauma and Its Effect: Implications for Police" shows that children living in poverty are far less likely to receive trauma care and can bear the impact of violence into adolescence and adulthood. This should worry everybody who cares about the fate of Baltimore and the children who are growing up in the city. There are very young children and families trapped in a web of violence that cannot be switched off as easily as turning off a scary television show. Every child is filled with the potential to thrive and do great things. The traumatic impact of violence should not be a hindrance to a child's well-being.

As the school year approaches, I hope Baltimore officials will consider ways to offer additional counseling and support for parents and children at schools, rec centers, after-school programs and libraries. These programs can help ease the anxiety and fear that is very real to children. Baltimore is a city filled with smart, caring people and some of the best medical institutions in the world. Pulling these resources together should be a top priority. Children thrive when they live in safe and nurturing communities. As we work through this rough time, please don't forget the children who are witnessing this horrid violence with their hearts and souls. Don't let Baltimore's children become a generation of unintended victims of violence.

Nancy Fenton is executive director of Episcopal Community Services of Maryland. Her email isnfenton@ecsm.org.