Violence victims get help to become own heroes

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Eddie was shot in the back and hospitalized. Then, he said, things got worse, and shortly after he recovered, he ended up in Sinai-Grace Hospital as a victim of violence a second time.

“(Getting shot) wasn’t as bad as the next reason I was (sent to the hospital),” said the 29-year-old, who did not want his last name published. “I was at a friend’s house and, long story short, he tried to kill me; left me for dead, broke the side of my face; he cut me with a bottle ... he punctured my lung. I basically drove myself to a friend’s house, passed out and woke up there.”

As he lay in a hospital bed a second time after last year’s attack, Eddie said he had time to reflect on his life choices. Two men who knew what he was going through, employees of the DLIVE program, figured that was the best time to approach him about helping him break the cycle of violence.

Detroit Life is Valuable Everyday, or DLIVE, is a nonprofit agency that offers Sinai-Grace patients ages 14-30 who were victims of violent crimes a battery of services to help them avoid returning to the hospital.

Program coordinators say the ideal time to approach violence victims about changing their lives is when they’re hospitalized, and thinking about how they got there.

“This is the trajectory: An individual will get shot or stabbed, and he comes into the hospital and is treated, and then discharged,” violence intervention specialist Calvin Evans said. “That person is now ... more likely to become a victim of violence again, being incarcerated, or ending up dead, within five years.”

According to a 2013 study by the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Strategy, up to 45 percent of patients treated for violent injuries are reinjured within five years. “Hospitals typically discharge violently injured patients without a viable strategy to stay safe or manage community pressure to retaliate,” the study said.

The problem is especially acute in Detroit. A 2014 Detroit News investigation found the city had the highest death rate for children through age 18 among all U.S. cities its size or larger in 2010, the most recent year for which data were available. The investigation cited violence as the second-largest cause of death among children.

DLIVE is the only program of its kind in Michigan, although there are 30 similar initiatives in the United States, Canada, England and El Salvador, said Linnea Ashley, managing director of the National Network of Hospital-based Violence Intervention Programs.

“There’s what we call a golden moment, when you meet someone bedside when they’re open and receptive to receiving help,” Ashley said. “Also, this kind of program works because (patients) deal with people who come from their communities, or have had different experiences.”

“A medical doctor helps heal the body,” Ashley said. “Our programs are dedicated to the entire person.”

DLIVE is not part of the national network, but administrators say they’ve submitted paperwork to join, now that the program has met the requirement of being in place for more than a year.

Evans is one of two violence intervention specialists on DLIVE’s staff. The program partners with the Detroit Medical Center to provide social workers and doctors who attend regular trauma support group meetings. Funded by the Skillman Foundation, the DMC Foundation and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, the program has 45 participants.

They run the gamut from people living the “street life,” and others who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jerry, 23, who asked that his last name not be published, said he belongs to the latter group.

“I was just walking down Eight Mile, and somebody asked me to see my phone,” he said. “Next thing I know, somebody pulled up and shot me in my kneecap. I was sitting home depressed, like, they messed my leg up forever.

“I can’t say I contributed to what happened to me,” he said. “I didn’t know the guy at all. I’m a quiet, chill type of person. I don’t bother anybody, I don’t even get into fights.”

But whether his lifestyle choices contributed to his injuries or not, he still needs treatment, Evans said.

“Anyone who’s a victim of violence is suffering from acute stress disorder, and when you put someone in that condition into the environment they came from, they’re going to relive that stress over and over, and it turns into PTSD,” Evans said.

Positive outlook

Violence intervention specialist Ray Winans said it’s important to avoid looking at victims in a negative light.

“When you’re dealing with an individual who’s had violent trauma, service providers always say ‘we want to put this person in our program because they’re at risk; we deal with the at-risk population.’ That’s the language, but it’s deficit language,” Winans said.

“At DLIVE, we come at it from an asset language: This person isn’t high-risk; this person has some challenges and some barriers, and we’re not trying to be the organization that’s the hero in this person’s story,” Winans said. “We empower him to be his own hero. That’s important”

DLIVE is the brainchild of Dr. Tolulope Sonuyi, a DMC emergency room doctor who started the program in 2014 after noticing shooting, stabbing or assault victims often returned to the hospital multiple times with similar or worse injuries.

“Without trauma-informed violence intervention that takes advantage of the teachable moments that occur at trauma centers, we discharge individuals back into the community with unaddressed traumatic stress and a lack of any guided strategy to prevent further trauma and promote healing,” Sonuyi said. “This takes its toll on individuals, families and communities on many levels.”

He concluded: “This is a public health issue that is preventable. This is not an issue that we can arrest our way out of or build more prisons for; we have to go upstream and invest in efforts that address the myriad of factors that contribute to being caught up in the cycle of violence.”

A life-changer

The program offers participants help meeting basic needs like getting GEDs and identification cards; job training and placement; and a trauma support group where members talk about the choices and experiences that put them in position to be hurt.

Eddie said he was ready to change his life after landing in the hospital a second time.

“It definitely was an eye-opener to what I was doing and how long I wanted to be around,” the Detroit resident said. “I got a kid; my son is 10; and I got a set of twins.”

At a recent support group, 12 participants watched a 16-minute video, “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime,” in which pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explained that repeated childhood stress can hinder the brain’s development.

Afterward, the DLIVE participants discussed how their childhood experiences may have contributed to them becoming violence victims. One man said he was often beaten by his older brother, which makes it difficult to deal with people.

Winans said he understood. His grandfather was murdered before he was born, “and I saw the fear my mom grew up with. I grew up with that same fear,” he said.

Winans and Evans have been both victims and perpetrators of violence.

“I’ve been very familiar with violence since age 9 when my father was murdered,” Winans said. “My grandfather was murdered. My cousin was murdered when I was 11, and one of my closest friends got murdered in front of me when I was 14 over a basketball game. Unfortunately, I took a man’s life when I was 15.”

Evans has a similar story: “I got stabbed; six months after that I was shot; within a year I ended up in prison,” he said. “So I was a part of that statistic that says a victim of violence will end up being a victim of violence again, or in prison. I ended up being both: back in the hospital, and then in prison.”

The program is open only to patients of Sinai-Grace Hospital, which is the DMC’s busiest trauma center, but Sonuyi said he’d like to add staff and eventually include Detroit Receiving Hospital, which also treats a high number of violence victims.

“With only two violence intervention specialists, it is impossible to engage all of the potential participants that come through Sinai-Grace’s trauma doors,” he said. “The need has definitely exceeded the capacity, with well over 150 potential participants being unable to be reached this past year.”

Eddie said DLIVE has helped him start to change his life, but insisted his recovery is not yet complete.

“I’m not going to say that I’m all the way out of the street,” he said. “I’m just not being as reckless as I was. A lot of times when I’m about to get into something, I’ll ask myself, ‘what are you doing here? Go home’ I’m not afraid to be smart, you know what I mean?”