Special project: Pulling up violence from its root

By Christopher Sutter
For 177 days, baby Jonylah Watkins lived before dying of a gunshot wound. Cradled in the lap of her father in the front seat of their gold minivan, pulled over to the side of street, a gunman, apparently targeting her father, approached the vehicle and opened fire. The Chicago Police Department suggested that Jonylah was unfortunately caught in the crossfire between her father, Johnathan Watkins, and the so-far unknown shooter. The bullet caused severe damage to the tiny girl’s internal organs, ultimately causing her death.
Jonylah is among hundreds of Chicago children in the last two decades who have been slain. In fact, over the last 20 years, Chicago has experienced the murders of over 360 small children, ages 10 and under, according to Chicago Police. Some were slain on the school bus, or while playing with toys on their porch, or even sitting inside of their homes.
Their deaths and thousands of shootings each year in Chicago have given birth to questions about safety.
As mere bystanders, what can children do to protect themselves from crossfire and acts of violence? What must they know in order to survive in Chicago?
Answering these and other questions, especially for children who live on the city’s West and South Sides, is a matter of survival. It is something that perhaps no one understands better than Chicago Safe Start, a violence prevention and awareness project for children.

Living in Violence
“Children learn about violence through their personal experience,” said Marlita White, director of Chicago Safe Start. “In some parts of the city, you can convene a group of kids, and 50 to 75 percent of them have seen a dead body, or have family in jail or family killed. They’re living in violence.”
Chicago Safe Start is a project started in 2000, aimed at preventing and reducing the impact violence on children. Partnered with centers stationed in across the city, the project features programs and practices used to console and help children exposed to violence.
“Our program ideally will reach children when the incident has newly happened,” said White. “We are trying to create an open door for children exposed to violence as soon as possible, as opposed to our traditional mental health, where children are referred to services after acting out.”
In many ways, White has been preparing for this role for a long while. Before Chicago Safe Start, White worked directly with families and children who’ve been seriously affected by public violence throughout the city, as well as domestic violence.
While earning her bachelor’s degree at Iowa State University, White says she focused on occupational practice, such as employee assistance and mediation. While acquiring her master’s degree at University of Illinois at Urbana, she focused clinically on families and children. And while pursuing her Ph.D., which she has not yet finished at University of Illinois at Chicago, she focused on community development. All three facets of her education aid her in her work with children and their families at Chicago Safe Start.
“It’s important to keep an eye on how those different levels of systems interact, and not just focus on the individual, but the social system and the broader community,” said White.
White explained that Chicago Safe Start is currently trying to generate discussion by gathering a group of politicians and advocates to begin looking closely at the issues, and to conclude how to move forward in advocacy. Although the federal funding that kept the project afloat for 10 years is now absent, White does not seem worried.
“We have a small team and lots of limitations. But our creativity is not limited,” said White. “The world has begun to change since we started.”

Focus Mental Health
A lot of this change has to do with mental health.
“Children have mental health,” said White. “It starts in the youngest years of life, and many people don’t appreciate that. Mental health exists on a continuum, and can be supported, or violated.”
According to research by neuroscientist Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., who spoke from his office in Houston, Tex., two parts of the brain, the low brain and high brain, interact in ways that can be beneficial or consequential to development, depending on one’s experience. The simple regulating functions like heartbeat, body temperature and respiration are affected and mediated by both the lower brain and high brain.
            Traumatic stress, unregulated serotonin and testosterone can increase activity or reactivity of the brainstem, said Perry, while factors like neglect can decrease the moderating capacity of the limbic and cortical systems.
            “The combination of these two occurrences suggest a link in increased aggression, impulsiveness and the ability or capacity to display violence or violent acts,” said Dr. Perry.
            White and Chicago Safe Start are trying to maintain close relationships with those who have visited, in order to speak with them and their families, about the roots of aggression or violence in relation to their experience.
“The ways that children experience violence or traumatizing in the earliest years of life
affects how the human body manages the surging chemicals of the body, certainly in the brain,” said Marlita White, on children living in environments that are violent or dangerous. “The brain is supposed to be focused on learning, testing the environment, but instead its focused on survival.”
            Chicago Safe Start coincides with a number of different locations available to those living in Chicago: Family Focus Inc. in Englewood, Metropolitan Family Services in Calumet City and Casa Central in Humboldt Park. Many people Marlita White has met with over the years, adults and children alike, she says, have never had the chance to talk about their issues, most of the underlying ones dealing with violation and abuse.

An Open Door
Mary Reynolds, of Casa Central, makes herself available in order to not only make conversation with these people, but enable them to feel invested in their community.
    “We hope they take away knowledge that relationships and people can be a resource to them, as opposed to relationships bringing pain and trauma,” said Reynolds, director of the Violence Prevention & Intervention program at Casa Central.
      For the programs and centers of Chicago Safe Start, the door is always open.

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