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Helping Children Cope with Effects of Violence

Wednesday, June 7, 2000 at 9:24 AM

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It's estimated that by the age of 18, young people will have viewed near 200,000 acts of violence on television. While the ensuing trauma is handled by the police and victims, a child who witnesses the violence in person could have problems that extend beyond the shock of the initial shock. 90.3's Yolanda Perdomo reports on a county program that's helping children who witness violence overcome its traumatic effects.

Yolanda Perdomo- It’s been (a) full of month of changes for Susan and her daughter Brittany. Susan is not her real name. She’s asked that her name and that of her daughter not be revealed. The girl just graduated from preschool and they’ve recently moved from Cleveland to an undisclosed location. That’s because of an incident that began when her ex-neighbor groped her. While Susan was outside telling her boyfriend about the incident, the neighbor came out with a gun.

Susan- He shot at four of us. At this time when he shot the first time, my daughter started screaming. During that, my neighbor caught me in the hallway because I didn’t know which way to run. He put the gun at my stomach, pulling the trigger - he told the police officer I would have been dead except for he ran out of bullets. And (I came) to find out this man had an AK-47, a semi automatic gun that shouldn’t be out here.

YP- While her daughter didn’t see the gun, she did heard the shots. Sporting two braided pony tails, dressed in pink-trimmed sneakers and a jean jacket with matching pants, Brittany is playing with a doll house complete with tiny furniture, farm animals and little people. As social worker Eileen Patton asks her questions about the move, she looks down at her toys, and begins to play in a hurried pace.

Q: I remember the last time you were here, we were talking about kind of being scared at your old house.
A: Uh-huh.
Q: Do you remember what you were scared about?
A: The monster.
Q: A monster huh, so what did the monster do?
A: Scared me.
Q: How did he scare you?
A: In the dark.
Q: He came in the dark and scared you, huh?
A: The monster go to jail!

Her mother says Brittany now has nightmares and has been more clingy. Rosemary Creeden says they try to make sure the incident doesn’t remain the defining moment of a child’s life. Creeden is a social worker and manager for the program. It’s assisted about 1,000 children in five regions - two areas in the city of Cleveland, as well as Lakewood, Euclid, and Maple Heights. Creeden says they use picture drawing and sand tray therapy to help children express their feelings. She unfolds a 4-by-4 foot display titled “Reflections of Children Who Witness Violence.” Glued on the black poster board are drawings - several of them have stick figures holding a gun or knife. One (drawing) by a 9-year-old girl describes what happened to her mother.

Rosemary Creeden- A child who’s depicting the outside of his house. And the child is crying and standing. And she say in her caption “please don’t let mommy die”. And there’s an obvious adult person laying on the sidewalk.

YP- Was that someone who saw her mother die?

RC- That was, yes, someone who saw her mother die.

YP- Creeden says art is one of the more effective ways for children to describe what happened to them.

RC- When you ask a child to draw about a happy event and you have a child who excludes the perpetrator’s picture, then that tells you a lot about when he feels safe and when he doesn’t feel safe. Or if you have a child, again, you ask them to draw a family, and the mother is very tiny, then that might give you an insight into how to view his mother.

YP- After a violent incident is reported to the police, the victims receive a pamphlet on how the violent act could later affect the child who witnessed it. Included are phone numbers of social workers on call 24 hours a day who will go to the home and get information from the children. The program serves as an emergency room of sorts, letting victims know of the different options and services available to them, free of charge. Elsie Day is the coordinator of the program for Cuyahoga County. She says while some people are reluctant to call, nearly 80% of those seeking information do seek help.

Elsie Day- It’s very common for a child who witnesses violence at a later time for them to start to be involved in violent activities. Within their home, within their school, within their community. And so that frequently puts them into the juvenile justice system. A child that has witnessed violence cannot focus in school. Unfortunately, violence has become prevalent in our community. This is government’s role right now and challenge to try to prevent this from happening.

YP- Kent State University criminal justice studies department will release a study of the program later this year. As for Susan, she plans to testify against her attacker in an upcoming trial. Brittany, who turns five in July, is already setting her sights on dance classes later this summer. Yolanda Perdomo 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

Additional Information

Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children

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