Fostering Positive Outcomes Through Community Violence Intervention
Across large U.S. cities in 2020, violent crimes such as homicides and gun assaults rose 30 percent and 8 percent compared to 2019, respectively, particularly impacting communities of color and high-poverty neighborhoods. This upward trend continued in the first quarter of 2021, where the number of homicides was 24 percent higher compared with the first quarter of 2020 and 49 percent higher than in the first quarter of 2019. In April 2021, the Biden administration announced several investments in community violence intervention (CVI) through the 2021 American Jobs Plan, Medicaid, and existing agency funds to develop local programs led by mediators who work with those most at risk of violence and connect them to wraparound services. These CVI investments are part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce gun violence that also involves allocating federal funding to stem the illegal flow of firearms; increasing resources for law enforcement and community policing; expanding summer education and workforce development programs for youth; and helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society through housing allocation and job training. On June 23, 2021, the U.S. Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Education, along with the White House Domestic Policy Council, convened “Community Violence Intervention (CVI) Webinar Series Part 1: Evidence-based Theory and Research on CVI,” during which researchers shared the social and structural determinants of community violence, initial findings from program evaluations in Chicago, and evidence-based strategies for CVI that cities can adopt.
Social and Structural Determinants
Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by violence. For more than 20 years, homicide has been the leading cause of death for African-American boys and young adults between 15 and 34 years of age, explained Shani Buggs, assistant professor with the Violence Prevention Research Program at University of California-Davis. Although African-American men make up only 6 percent of the total population, they constitute more than half of all gun homicide victims. In discussing the social and structural factors that lead to community violence, Maury Nation, professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University, noted that communities of color, particularly African-American communities, have experienced disparate access to employment, housing, health care, quality education, healthy food, and safe public places for outdoor recreation, which hinders African-American families’ potential for success in work and school. The lack of access to resources to maintain a high quality of life, combined with racist policies and inequities in the justice system, has led to a collective, generational trauma among African-Americans that correlates with disinvestment in the neighborhoods in which they live.
Left untreated, trauma begets more trauma, and research indicates that most of those who commit acts of violence in their communities have historically been underserved by the education, healthcare, justice, and economic systems that could support them before they resort to violence, Buggs stated. Additional risk factors for community violence include low levels of parental involvement, victimization, and dangerous peer networks. Exposure to adverse events as a child, such as witnessing violence or having an incarcerated parent, increases a child’s likelihood of engaging in aggressive behavior themselves and experiencing poor physical and mental health outcomes as an adult. Perpetrators and victims of violence often share a location and social networks. As Buggs indicated, being a member of the same social network as someone who died of homicide increases one’s risk of the same by 900 percent. Investment in CVI is “important because we are actually trying to undo many centuries of disproportionate marginalization for black and brown people,” Nation stated.
At the local level, community “street” outreach and crisis management have been effective strategies to interrupt “entrenched cycles” of violence, Buggs stated. Hiring violence intervention and prevention specialists who have the community’s trust and have the same lived experiences as those whom they serve is critical to making an impact. Crisis management specialists are trained in dispute resolution and mediation to defuse tense situations that could turn violent. In addition, these specialists offer supports and trauma services to those who have survived or have been exposed to violence to prevent retaliation and foster healing. One such effort is the Metropolitan Peace Academy, led by Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P) ― a framework that operates under Chicago nonprofit Metropolitan Family Services. CP4P trains outreach workers through a rigorous 144-hour curriculum covering best practices in violence prevention such as nonviolence strategies, trauma-informed services, and restorative justice. Deborah Gorman-Smith, dean and professor at University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, emphasized the importance of professional development for street outreach workers. To this end, the Metropolitan Peace Academy partners with organizations to offer continued training, support, and supervision for outreach workers.
Targeting interventions to those individuals at greater risk of violence, victimization, or perpetration can generate significant positive outcomes. To make an impact during the early years of child development, the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (CCYVP) leads programs for children and families through partnerships with Chicago schools and conducts research and evaluations to understand the effects of interventions. Schools and Families Educating Children works with families of at-risk first graders to encourage parental involvement in school, increase reading aptitude, and improve parenting skills and relationships with the goal of building support networks with other families in the program. Also led by CCYVP, Guiding Responsibility & Expectations in Adolescents Today & Tomorrow targets sixth-grade Chicago students and their families to reduce school violence by improving behavior, emphasizing academic achievement, and developing parental skills and involvement. These interventions led to positive outcomes such as significant reductions in violent crime, including shootings and homicides, as well as decreased child aggression and improved academics. CCYVP and nonprofit Bright Star Community Outreach are currently evaluating interventions outlined in the Greater Bronzeville Community Action Plan. The work of more than 70 Chicago partners has led to promising initial results, with robberies, aggravated assaults, shootings, and homicides in Bronzeville declining from 2018 to 2020.
For those who have been victims of violence, hospital-based violence intervention programs offer counseling, peer support, case management, and other social services vital to recovery. Hospital-based programs support patients’ immediate needs for safety and health and then, after discharge, connect clients to community resources that offer additional physical and mental health supports. As Buggs explained, research shows that violently injured individuals who participate in such programs are less likely to be convicted of a future violent crime and less likely to fall victim to another act of violence than those who do not. According to Buggs, these approaches are most successful when they are combined with wraparound services such as housing and legal assistance, behavioral health services, and skill-building programs. Access to these services, however, depends largely on developing a strong relationship with violence intervention and prevention specialists, who can tailor service delivery to the particular needs of at-risk individuals. Furthermore, providing “person-centered peer support” is necessary to create genuine relationships that lead to positive community outcomes by “meeting people where they are,” Buggs stated.
To meaningfully reduce rates of violent crime, engagement with schools is critical. As Nation noted, poorly functioning schools foster poor outcomes for students, such as dropping out of school and becoming involved with the criminal justice system. In addition, hospital-based interventions; community engagement efforts; and partnerships that bring together law enforcement, outreach workers, social service providers, and local residents can offer tailored services to at-risk individuals without increasing mass incarceration. Any attempts to improve the social and structural determinants of community violence should account for the legacy of marginalization of minorities and examine strategies to ensure that society values their lives and neighborhoods. Because the structural and social inequities driving community violence have been embedded in the United States for decades, undoing them will take years. Thus, solutions to the problem should encompass a long-term commitment of 20 to 30 years rather than a 5-year timeline because “we’ve seen that over and over again — we start to make progress and then we fall back because we think the work is done,” stated Gorman-Smith. The engagement of dedicated outreach and violence prevention specialists who listen to residents is vital to ensuring that communities and families can heal from past trauma and collectively develop solutions to break the cycle of violence.