What the kids saw: Connecticut program aims to help children who witness violence
Children who witness every kind of cruelty and violence, from verbal assaults to murder, are the focus of a pilot program in central Connecticut.
“The consistent thread I see is that kids tend to be resilient if you give them the resources to cope,” New Britain State’s Attorney Brian Preleski said Tuesday.
Preleski is leading the recently launched program, called State’s Attorney’s Violence Eradication and Disruption (SAVED), with help from Rev. John Walker, a retired police officer and senior pastor of the Saint James Missionary Baptist Church in New Britain. Inspectors in the prosecutor’s office, along with school and community leaders and police also are partners in the Division of Criminal Justice program, which is centered on New Britain, Bristol, Newington and Wethersfield.
The goal is to identify children affected by trauma and help them deal, primarily through counseling, with the dark scenes replaying in their minds. Exposure to violence in childhood, according to mental health and criminal justice experts, increases risks of substance abuse, mental health problems and criminal behavior into adulthood.
Children’s reactions to violence, Preleski and Walker said, range from shutting down to perpetrating violence themselves. The vital role for him, Walker said, is connecting with affected kids and gaining their trust through regular communication.
“These kids want to make sure that someone hears them,” he said. “My job is to build a rapport with them, to let them know that I’m there for them... These kids are very perceptive — they want to know they can trust you.”
The program also seeks to educate parents, grandparents and other family members about the lasting impact of childhood trauma. Program leaders say intervention is critical to breaking multi-generational cycles of violence, substance abuse and criminal justice involvement.
”We are painfully aware of how exposure to violence can affect a child’s well-being,” New Britain Mayor Erin E. Stewart said. “It’s a multifaceted impact that requires a holistic approach to healing.”
The idea for the SAVED program, Preleski said, came from a summer conference of the National District Attorneys Association. Prosecutors from Colorado and Alabama described the long-term, corrosive effects on children who witness violence and how a community effort can help them.
A primary focus in the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes is the victims who are injured, killed and psychologically damaged. But kids who see and hear such incidents suffer, too. Preleski offered the example of a child telling a parent about seeing his friend shot.
“Your first instinct as a parent is to say, ‘Oh, thank God it wasn’t you. Thank God you’re OK,’ ” he said, “but that is a tough experience for that kid. He will relive that in his mind again and again.”
SAVED is the most forward-looking, prevention-focused program ever initiated by the criminal justice division, Preleski said. Much of the division’s work is triage, he said, but this effort seeks positive changes 10 or 15 years from now. He said he hopes the pilot program can be continued and expanded.
“I’d like to think this is just smart,” Preleski said.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recognizes the depth of the problem and funds efforts to help kids exposed to violence throughout the nation, according to a description of programs on its website, https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/programs/children-exposed-violence.
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