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Life, Death, and PTSD in Oakland

How violence and poverty are traumatizing the city's youth.



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Youth trauma is a major concern of the Department of Justice's Defending Childhood Initiative, founded in 2010. In the past year, the Office of Justice Programs awarded $10 million to projects around the country that are testing programs to prevent violence and help children locked in its grip — whether victim or perpetrator — recover from its effects. Oakland received grants from the initiative to fund its Ceasefire program as well as efforts to reduce juvenile recidivism, youth gang-related crime, and the sexual exploitation of children.

Currently, none of these programs focus on PTSD in youths, but the premise of Defending Childhood is to view young victims and offenders through the prism of public health, not criminal justice. "We're beginning to see a public conversation about the most extreme manifestations of trauma," said Rich, referring to war veterans and mass shootings. He would like to broaden that discussion to include the toxic stress children in Oakland, and other communities like it, come to see as a normal part of life.

"The goal of healing," he said, "is to get to a point where you're not really a danger to yourself or others. That's the personal responsibility in the context of your trauma."

Arango knows his place in this movement. "It's like I'm putting my brick into building a better community," he said, adding that when he was coming up, there were no "original gangsters," or wiser people, who had recovered from trauma and could guide him and his friends beyond the confines of a violent life and death in Oakland.

"We didn't have people like that," he said. "But there's me now. I could do it."

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