In just three weeks, two East St. Louis-area teens from Children’s Home & Aid’s juvenile justice programs died because of gun violence in their community. Families are expected to do the impossible––grieve and heal in an environment where trauma is a daily reality. While we cannot fathom the effects these tragic deaths had on the families, friends, and neighbors who knew the two teens, their feelings are echoed in the helplessness and frustration felt by our staff who nurtured strong relationships with both youths while they were alive.
When gun violence occurs, our staff grieve not only the loss of someone who they had a close connection with, but we also grieve what could have been. Young lives––and all their potential, hopes, and dreams––are extinguished in an instant when a gun is used to cope with trauma, loss, and fear. Every day, teens and children in our programs navigate unsafe situations at home and in their communities, which makes it difficult to break free from cycles of trauma. These youths fear for their safety while walking down the street. They are held at gunpoint on the way to school and robbed or jumped for gang retaliation. They get caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting outside their home or down the block. One young teen watched as his older brother was murdered in front of him.
Many of our parents have generational trauma which they have never themselves processed. Some of our families are homeless and must seek shelter in unsafe situations. In the absenceof a safe space to heal, trauma often begets trauma. When resources are scarce, coping mechanisms and operating in survival mode become part of daily life. In one instance, a teen carried a gun because he felt his life was in danger after several of his family members died from violence. Youths shouldn’t have to rely on guns for self-protection. Raising children under these circumstances is unacceptable.
For years we have partnered with organizations, local businesses, churches, and schools to strengthen families and heal communities. But our combined efforts still aren’t enough. When youths leave a counseling session or complete one of our programs, they often lose that support and once again are left alone to navigate a complex environment that includes trauma, violence, and entrenched poverty.
We must commit as organizations, communities, elected officials, and neighbors to disrupt and transform inequitable institutions and systems so that people of all races, abilities, communities, and identities have equal access to the resources necessary to thrive.
This is not the first time that our families and staff have endured devastating tragedies and it won’t be the last until we commit together to change the conditions that create trauma in communities, schools, and homes. We cannot fix this alone.
Vice President, Southern Region
Children’s Home and Aid