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New Orleans City Hall

Claiming that past policies have done little for children in turmoil, the New Orleans City Council called Thursday for a new strategy to treat children in the city who have been exposed to trauma.

The council passed a resolution asking the Orleans Parish Children and Youth Planning Board to offer recommendations by this time next year on how best to tackle childhood trauma.

The focus will be on how schools and psychologists can work together to find children who have gone through painful events and assuage the effect those experiences have had on their lives.

The board also will recommend how much money should be dedicated to the approach, an all-important consideration as state and federal money for behavioral health services has dwindled.

Because City Hall reserves little money for children's programming, it's unclear where any new cash would come from.

The resolution — the council’s second on the topic in recent weeks — comes after a June series posted at nola.com chronicled the traumatic experiences of children in Central City exposed to violence.

“This resolution creates a working group that can actually inform the city as to how to act and how to spend our precious resources ... which have not always been spent and prioritized as they should,” Councilman Jason Williams said.

Statistics presented Thursday painted a startling picture. Close to half of the city’s children have experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Denese Shervington, of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies.

Such disorders are typically caused by direct exposure to gun violence or the murders of close relatives or friends. “That means they can’t concentrate, they are hyperactive and they are reliving the experiences that they have been through,” Shervington said.

Children who don’t get proper treatment after such tragedies can become violent or turn to substance abuse to numb the pain, eventually contributing to the city’s crime problem, she said.

Meanwhile, cuts in federal Medicaid funding and in mental health services around the state have made it hard for treatment agencies to remain viable. 

And the city’s schools by and large are ill-equipped for dealing with the problem. The recent series on nola.com noted that many schools rely on zero-tolerance discipline strategies, suspending or expelling misbehaving children who in fact need targeted support.

Not all educators are blind to the issue. The New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program — run by Williams’ wife, Liz Marcell Williams — was started in 2014 specifically to educate students with the most severe problems.

A trauma-informed learning collaborative also has been underway in five New Orleans schools since 2015.

But more work is needed, Jason Williams and other council members said. The planning board is expected, by August 2019, to recommend ways to increase funding for such services, to research ways to prevent children from experiencing trauma and to help children who have been affected by it.

The strategy it produces is expected to involve contributions from schools, psychologists, mentoring programs and programs within the New Orleans Recreation Department, according to the council’s resolution.

Offering a personal take Thursday was Shawn Scott, a coach at A.L. Davis Playground in Central City. Over a 14-year span, nola.com reported, the playground has lost 28 former players to gun violence.

Scott, who said he “learned in the streets” because his mother was addicted to drugs, witnesses daily the effect trauma has on his players.

“I know what trauma is,” he said. “So I started this coaching ... so I could give love back to the kids. Because I know in the streets, ain’t no love.”

His wife, Domisheka Hankton — a cousin of convicted gang kingpin Telly Hankton — said she was inspired to get involved after her cousin's ordeal had a traumatic effect on her own son, who was bullied at school when Hankton's misdeeds were publicly reported. 

More money is important, but so is people’s attention, she said.

“We do need money, but if y’all could just come out with your time,” Domisheka Hankton said. “Just come and talk to different people, let them see that y’all care for them. We could love them, we really could.”

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.