Inner-city life is hard. The complexities of life in “da hood” should encourage those seeking to serve inner-city youth to approach individuals with humility and long-term relationships. For years, I have been bothered by drive-by “mercy ministry” approaches by those who pull up in vans from outside low-income neighborhoods to “do ministry” as if those complexities do not exist. Granted, intentions are good and many are thankful that real concern is evidenced, but drive-by ministries are under the delusion that spending a few hours with inner-city youth from difficult circumstances is actually helping them in the long-run. The truth is that “making a difference” in the life of youth from difficult circumstances takes years of personal care and discipleship, not just a few hours of games, Bible stories, and listening to testimonies every month. Many of the problems in “da hood” are systemic and generational because the chain of child trauma has not been intercepted and healed.
Child trauma is devastating and is one of the ways in which sin and evil destroy the lives of many people early in life, igniting a life of self-destruction and hurting others. Children who experience trauma become teens who present typical reactions like impaired cognitive function, impaired academic performance, feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, despair, apathy, irrational guilt, easy and frequent crying, increased feelings of insecurity, social isolation, sleep difficulties, and acting out or anti-social behaviors that may lead to juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, fatigue, hypertension, psychosomatic and somatic symptoms, and the like.
In Ten Things Every Juvenile Court Judge Should Know About Trauma and Delinquency, from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Kristine Buffington, Carly Dierkhising, and Shawn Marsh offer a highly informative perspective that I argue is just as needed for those working with inner-city youth from difficult circumstances. The authors make the following points trauma exposed children:
(1) A traumatic experience is an event that threatens someone’s life, safety, or well-being. Trauma can include a direct encounter with a dangerous or threatening event, or it can involve witnessing the endangerment or suffering of another living being. A key condition that makes these events traumatic is that they can overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope, and elicit intense feelings such as fear, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. Traumatic events include: emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; neglect; physical assaults; witnessing family, school, or community violence; war; racism; bullying; acts of terrorism; fires; serious accidents; serious injuries; intrusive or painful medical procedures; loss of loved ones; abandonment; and separation.
(2) Child traumatic stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Rates of PTSD in juvenile justice-involved youth are estimated between 3 percent to 50 percent making it comparable to the PTSD rates (12 percent-20 percent) of soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq.
(3) Trauma impacts a child’s development and health throughout his or her life. Exposure to child abuse and neglect can restrict brain growth especially in the areas of the brain that control learning and self regulation. Exposure to domestic violence has also been linked to lower IQ scores for children. Youth who experience traumatic events may have mental and physical health challenges, problems developing and maintaining healthy relationships, difficulties learning, behavioral problems, and substance abuse issues.
(4) Complex trauma is associated with risk of delinquency. In fact, about 72 percent of youth that enter the juvenile justice system have diagnosable psychiatric and psychological disorders. Moreover, research shows that youth who experience some type of trauma of any kind are at elevated risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Even worse, about 50 percent of the male victims of child maltreatment later became juvenile delinquents.
(5) Traumatic exposure, delinquency, and school failure are related. Success in school requires confidence, the ability to focus and concentrate, the discipline to complete assignments, the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors, and the skills to understand and negotiate social relationships. When youth live in unpredictable and dangerous environments they often, in order to survive, operate in a state of anxiety and paranoia often expressed through “abnormally increased arousal, responsiveness to stimuli, and scanning of the environment for threats,” according to the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers.
(6) Trauma assessments can reduce misdiagnosis, promote positive outcomes, and maximize resources. Often trauma exposed children are often misdiagnosed as hyperactive, having attention deficits, or general behavior disorders when, in fact, there are deeper issues present.
(7) There are mental health treatments that are effective in helping youth who are experiencing child traumatic stress. As much as I believe in biblical counseling, because of the physical damage done to the brain of trauma-exposed children, there needs to be more openness for some youth to get clinical help.
(8) There is a compelling need for effective family involvement. Youth who do not have helpful and consistent family support are at higher risk of violence and prolonged involvement in the court system.
(9) Youth are highly resilient. Resiliency is the capacity for human beings to thrive in the face of adversity like trauma. Research suggests that the degree to which one is resilient is influenced by a complex interaction of risk and protective factors that exist across various domains, such as individual, family, community and school. Research on resiliency suggests that youth are more likely to overcome adversities when they have caring adults in their lives.
(10) The juvenile justice system needs to be trauma-informed at all levels — and so should church youth workers serving kids from difficult circumstances.
What Buffington, Deirkhising, and Marsh present above is the beginning to changing how we think about urban ministry. Low-income children from broken families living in rough inner-city neighborhoods are at risk of exposure to multiple traumas in ways that middle-class youth are not. To not understand the pervasiveness of trauma is to not take “da hood” seriously as a potential trauma zone.
The inference should not be that all inner-city kids are trauma victims, but that trauma must be a variable in considering how to help those in need and assessing whether or not current programs are capable of dealing with root issues. I am guilty of making this mistake in the past. I could have been far more helpful and patient had I been a trauma-informed inner-city church worker.
In the final analysis, I would argue that only healthy local churches are capable of bringing the kind of holistic community required to address urban pain and dysfunction. Only a committed community of believers can provide the long-term care, compassion, and discipleship needed to increase resilience and heal trauma-exposed communities.
While drive-by mercy ministry is great for PowerPoint presentations and fundraising brochures, holistic liberation driven by the Greatest Commandment (Matt. 22:34-40) requires a long-term commitment to loving relationships.