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Father Jeff: Camden still has a lot of healing to do

Father Jeff Putthoff S.J., executive director of Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a non-profit organization that works with the city’s youth, warns, that despite this positive news, Camden still has a lot of healing to do.

This past Friday, Brian Williams from NBC Nightly News did a segment on the positive changes the police have been making in Camden since the last time he was there in 2013, when Camden made national news for being the murder capital of the country. He reported on a decrease of homicides and violent crimes and a police force becoming more actively involved in the community. Father Jeff Putthoff, S.J., executive director of Hopeworks 'N Camden, a non-profit organization that works with the city's youth, however, warns, that despite this positive news, Camden still has a lot of healing to do.

Father Jeff compares Camden to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Just like radiation poisoning affected the surrounding community for years after the plant was shut down (some would say even up till today), trauma too can slowly poison the survivors of and witnesses to violence, abuse and neglect left to live in a toxic environment. Even with a decrease in violence and crime on the streets, there are those who are still struggling to move on from past traumas.

"Trauma has medical implications. Your brain health is affected by stress hormones," he said. "Studies have shown that overexposure to cortisol, the hormone released during stress, damages the neurons in the brain and has been linked to heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes as well as other diseases."

The other issue these victims are facing is psychological. Traumatized youth tend to orient to a life that is unsafe, and form relationships that are not healthy for them, and often find themselves involved in violence and drugs. Father Jeff believes the answer to this cycle of violence is to ask the right questions. Instead of blaming the youth and demanding to know what was wrong with them, he says we should ask, "what has happened to you?" Instead of asking why a teenager is skipping school, we should be looking at what could be the possible reasons behind it. Maybe he has to take care of a younger sibling or work to put food on the table for his family.

"In order to heal you need to name what happened to you first," he said. "You need to attend to the emotional and psychological injuries as well as any physical ones. There needs to be more of a perspective on how people handle pain."

To illustrate this, Father Jeff shares the story of a young man who, when he was 12 years old, found his father OD'd on the floor. He grabbed his mom and walked out, never looking back. If you asked him, he would say that this event had no bearing on his life. But then he drops out of school, exhibits hyper aggressive behavior and can't hold down a job…all symptoms of an underlying trauma.

Victims of abuse, especially when the perpetrator is a family member, tend to gloss over what happened and try to rationalize the bad things. "In order to survive, we deny, diminish, defend. It is not unusual to hear terrible stories of abuse, but the youth idealize the situation. They won't admit a loved one was hurting them," he explained.

"By naming what has happened to them, it allows children to disconnect from the negative behaviors and feelings and offers them the possibility of a better future," he added. "So many of the youth we see say that they just thought that this was the way life was."

So why don't the rest of us see underneath all the bravado? Father Jeff says because that would require empathy on our part. "We would have to face similar things in our own past and that would be a real challenge," he said.

In response to this need of healing they saw coming out of the increased rates of homicide and violent crimes, Stop the Trauma, Violence and Murder and Hopeworks'N Camden began to work on a plan to help their city. In March of 2013, they held their first trauma summit and from that came Healing 10 which considers itself a "'community of communities' planned as a cross sector approach to bring a trauma informed paradigm to Camden." Healing 10 has grown into a group of partners from the city government, schools, churches and the medical community.

"The mission of Healing 10 is for Camden to be healing center of America," Father Jeff explained.  "It is precisely because Camden is so troubled that our city is the perfect place for the healing to begin."

On Monday and Tuesday, October 6 and 7, you are invited to their second Trauma Summit which will present an analysis of Camden using the CDC's Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACES) which in the 1990s looked at how traumatic events in early childhood affect a person's health and behavior throughout his or her entire life, as well as discuss the importance of attachment theory. Then solutions will be offered on the community, organization, and individual levels. One of the solutions that will be presented is organizational training by the Sanctuary Institute founded by Drexel University's Dr. Sandra Bloom. The sanctuary module was designed to help organizations that work with vulnerable adults, kids and families.

"We are pushing for organizations to become sanctuary-certified and to get ACES a part of the curriculum in medical schools. It is currently not used in any U.S. school," Father Jeff said.

The trauma summit will start at 8:30 a.m. both days on Rutgers University Camden campus and is open to all who are interested in the topic.

"We need more and more people to be aware of the problem. Recognizing the injury is the first step to healing," Father Jeff said.