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Comer Children's wins $2M federal grant to help kids affected by violence

UCM REACT will establish trauma screening program, specialty psychiatry clinic and therapy

September 26, 2016

The University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital will provide screening and mental health care for hundreds of children and families that have been affected by violence in many of Chicago's South and West side neighborhoods.

The effort, called the University of Chicago Medicine REACT Program (Recovery and Empowerment After Community Trauma), is supported by a new $2 million, five-year federal grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"Chicago's struggles with gun violence mean the day-to-day lives of so many of our children are shaped by community violence," said Bradley Stolbach, PhD, a pediatric trauma psychologist at Comer Children's who will direct UCM REACT. "That has major ripple effects, not just for those who've been injured, but for kids who witness violence, who know people who've been killed or hurt, or who have to walk to school on streets where shootings take place. Youth who may be physically unscathed wind up coping with chronic stress from worrying about something as basic as their own safety."

Under the program, the hospital will screen emergency department and intensive care unit patients for trauma exposure, regardless of whether they're being treated for violent injuries. Patients and families will be offered support, counseling and intervention. UCM REACT, which will be a community treatment and services center in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, will also create a weekly "trauma-informed" clinic. It will be co-directed by a psychiatrist and a psychologist that will be designed to care for the psychological, psychiatric, social and behavioral effects of being exposed to community violence.

The grant money will also be used to provide training and for partnerships with community-based therapy providers.

"Unfortunately, our Level I Pediatric Trauma Center has cared for too many children who have been exposed to violence this summer," said John Cunningham, MD, chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Chicago. "This is a significant ray of hope for some of the most disadvantaged children and families in our community."

About 30,000 kids visit Comer Children's emergency department each year for everything from sprains to life-threatening gunshot wounds. The hospital is home to the South Side's only Level 1 pediatric trauma center, where children with the most severe injuries and illnesses receive the highest level care. In 2015, more than one-quarter of the trauma patients who arrived at Comer Children's had violent injuries such as shootings and stabbings – a rate five times higher than what's seen at Children's trauma centers nationally. More than 93 percent of these Comer Children's trauma patients survive.

"Media coverage about Chicago's violence focuses on the number of shootings and the number of deaths," Stolbach said. "But what people aren't talking about is that the vast majority of people survive, go back home and live under the weight of what happened. That affects them and everyone else around them, because a single shooting can affect literally hundreds of people."

Trauma-specific mental health intervention isn't readily available in Chicago, where half of city-run mental health clinics closed in 2012.

UCM REACT builds on Healing Hurt People - Chicago, a partnership between Comer Children's, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County and the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University, which offers hospital-based violence intervention and counseling to help young patients who've been injured by violence. Stolbach co-directs Healing Hurt People - Chicago with Rev. Carol Reese, LCSW, Violence Prevention Coordinator and Chaplain with the Cook County Trauma Unit at Stroger Hospital.

Stolbach and his team believe screening patients in the ED and intensive care unit will let UCM REACT reach those who might not receive help otherwise.

"African-American children and youth are among the most likely members of our society to be exposed to trauma, but are also among the least likely to receive the services that could help them cope with it," Stolbach said. "But in the emergency room, we have an opportunity to acknowledge what is happening in the communities we serve and offer interventions that can support trauma recovery."

Children suffering from violence-related psychological trauma have a significantly higher risk of developing emotional and behavior difficulties, which can lead to learning problems in school, involvement with the justice system and long-term physical health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

Comer Children's anticipates helping nearly 1,300 patients and families through UCM REACT. The clinic and the screenings are set to begin this fall.

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