Riding Along With Milwaukee's Counselors For Traumatized Youths

Tai Hooper, 34, and Hendriel Anderson, 40, roll into the parking of a Northwest Milwaukee housing complex and jump from their car. They’re running late. Both know the basics of the situation: A week earlier, Alexis Varnado, 17, had been playing Grand Theft Auto at her aunt’s house with her younger cousin when two young men came to rob the apartment. The burglars wore sweatshirts with the hoods pulled tight so that their faces were barely visible. They pushed the two into the younger cousin’s room and told them to lie in the closet while they ransacked the apartment. Three hours later an older cousin came to find the young girl and boy still crouched in the closet, afraid to move. Hooper and Anderson are here to check in on the girl.

Together the two comprise Milwaukee’s Trauma-informed Response Team (TRT). First responding officers in District 7 — which encompasses some of the city’s most volatile neighborhoods — give the team a heads-up when someone under the age of 18 is present at a violent scene. The most common category for referrals is battery, followed closely by domestic violence; shootings and homicides account for about 15% of the referrals, according to TRT’s 2016 tally. Hooper and Anderson collect the reports each day, and follow up in the timeframe that they see appropriate. If there was a sudden death, they give enough time that the family has had time to grieve a bit and bury the body. But in a case like Varnado’s, they’ll come by as quickly as the family will have them.

TRT falls under the umbrella of “trauma-informed policing,” a concept that at the most basic level means training officers to not exacerbate trauma at a crime scene. But in its ideal state, it is a model in which officers and clinicians work as equal partners to support people who bear the emotional scars of violent crime. TRT lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

This is part of a larger push to alleviate police officers’ role as the front lines of our broken mental health system — 911 calls in times of psychiatric crisis have been documented to often turn deadly. In a model such as Milwaukee’s, trauma-informed policing would be more accurately described as police-informed trauma counseling. Hooper and Anderson arrive separately from officers, and are quick to inform patients that none of the information shared with them will be relayed to the police.

Inside the apartment, Anderson and Hooper are perched on stools at the small, square kitchen table, across from Varnado, who’s dressed in skinny jeans and Doc Martens sneakers. The underside of her hair is shaved; the rest straightened and pulled into a high bun. She looks like a tough girl, until she opens her mouth.

TRT is part of a larger push to alleviate police officers’ role as the front lines of our broken mental health system.

Anderson sits with his arms crossed. He is a Marine Corps vet and a former police officer turned social worker. He will turn his law enforcement lingo on when talking with cops, and frequently mention his military past with macho clients, as if to assure them that talking about your feelings doesn’t make you soft.

He speaks in a low, authoritative voice. “How are you doing?” he asks.

“I’m good,” Varnado says, fidgeting and looking at the table.

He nods, as if he she had given a deep answer. “And what does that look like?”

“Sometimes I worry,” Varnado says. “It doesn’t happen all the time.” She looks to her mother, Monique Lock, who is leaning against the wall behind Anderson.

She recounts the day of the robbery, and slowly opens up as she does, speaking to Anderson and Hooper rather than the table. Her narrative mirrored the police report, with a few added details, like when she peeked out of the closet, unsure if the burglars had left. Her cousin told her to shut it quick — “I don’t want to die,” she remembers him saying to her. So she closed the closet door and huddled with him for another hour.

Lock wipes a tear from her eye as she listens to her daughter.

“You did the right thing. It’s probably because of your brave actions that you and Maliki are still alive,” Anderson says to Varnado, referring to her younger cousin.

Hooper nods. “Waiting for someone, that was smart,” she says.

“I think like, Oh shit, if I knew they didn’t have guns, could I have stopped them?” she says to Hooper.

Hooper is a soft-spoken woman with a warm laugh and distinctly maternal vibe. Her big brown eyes speak empathy. “That’s a normal feeling. Trying to figure out how to get past it… there’s no time limit to that,” she says.

Over the next 20 minutes they chat about school: Varnado is a senior in high school, and should be graduating this year if she can pass her math and gym classes. Future plans: college, hopefully. They ask about her appetite and sleep schedule: both normal. How often she has flashbacks to the day, or feels waves of anxiety: sometimes. “Anxiety can sometimes be good, just that yellow zone,” Anderson says, opposed to a red zone of anxiety. “It keeps us alert. You have such a good spirit. You bounced back.” Varnado tries to hide a smile.

Finally, they inquire how Lock is doing: not as well as her daughter. She remembers the adrenaline rushing to her head when she got the call from her sister about the incident. “I’m like, They put my kid in the closet? It could have been…” She starts to cry.

Anderson gestures at Varnado. “Go give your mother a hug,” he says. The teenager stands several inches taller than her mother; her hug is encompassing.

In less than half an hour Hooper and Anderson do a little therapy (reframing the narrative so a person understands their actions in a positive light is a classic cognitive behavioral technique). They assess the girl’s overall stability (she’s doing fine in school and doesn’t seem to be acting out). They gauge her support network; she and her mother are tight. Strong family and social supports are one of the lynchpin predictors of whether someone will recover from a traumatic experience. And they inform her of other resources available (Anderson pitches mother and daughter on a support group for families).

As they gather their things to leave, Anderson and Lock chat amicably. Her tears have dried and now she’s laughing. They’re trying to figure out where they’ve met before. Possibly they crossed paths when he was a cop? Or did they grow up in the same neighborhood? He just looks so familiar — he gets this a lot. It could be because he’s so easy to warm up to that he feels familiar quickly, or because he has spent so much time in the community.

“Thank you guys,” Lock yells after Hooper and Anderson as they walk down the hall, which reeks of stale cigarette smoke. “Be safe. Have a blessed one.”

Tai Hooper and Hendriel Anderson pose for a portrait outside of their office at the Mental Health Complex in Milwaukee.

Jake Naughton for BuzzFeed News

America’s mental health system is ailing — states were forced to cut more than $4 billion in public mental health funding following the 2008 recession. And jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health hospitals, with officers as the first point of entry. Today, police departments are more accustomed to fielding calls dealing with mental illness than in decades past. Over 2,000 police departments across the country now offer Crisis Intervention Team training, which teaches officers to identify signs of mental illness, and how to efficiently and safely get someone in crisis into the care of a mental health professional. (Despite these trainings, about a quarter of the people killed by police officers in 2015 had a severe mental illness.) And even if the Trump administration cuts funds to experiment with trauma-informed initiatives, the movement is now grassroots. (All of the funding for TRT is from Milwaukee city and county.)

“We’re looking at this from the standpoint of being very preventative,” says James Harpole, the assistant chief of the Milwaukee Police Department. Identifying and assisting children soon after a traumatic event will, he hopes, “get them on track so that they aren’t spiraling out of control to a life that is going to find them locked within the criminal justice system, or the revolving door of the mental health system here in Milwaukee County.”

Interest in trauma-informed policing is gaining traction across the country.

Interest in trauma-informed policing is gaining traction across the country. In San Diego County, all first responders — including police officers as well as firefighters and medical workers — are trained to calm people in moments of crisis. In St. Cloud, Minnesota, a chaplain, whose official title is “trauma-informed advocate,” is embedded in the police department to council potentially traumatized youth. In Boston, a local mental health advocacy and service organization is on call for police referrals.

The Yale Child Study Center, the epicenter for police–mental health partnership research, has consulted with and trained hundreds of local law enforcement agencies over the years. (Several representatives from Milwaukee visited Yale, but didn’t participate in a full training.)

“It’s no longer seen as crazy, the idea of police thinking from a developmental perspective,” says Steven Marans, director of the Childhood Violent Trauma Center at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, and one of the architects of the original police-mental health partnership model. “So lots of communities have been involved in versions of this kind of work.”

High-level leadership within the law enforcement community is tuned into trauma, too. “From law enforcement perspective, it is incredibly important that we accept new and evolving medical sciences,” says Ronal Serpas, co-chair of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration and former New Orleans Police superintendent. The detrimental effects of unresolved trauma, he says, are so clearly supported by science that the issue has become apolitical — it’s as commonplace as taking an aspirin to alleviate a headache.

Addressing trauma goes beyond typical solutions to crime: more cops, harsher sentences, better schools, more jobs, and so on. The Department of Justice has been quietly supporting research and law enforcement experiments in this realm since the ‘90s. For example, the DoJ’s Defending Childhood initiative allocated $5.5 million in grants to address children exposed to violence at its launch in 2010, and subsequent funding for promising projects since. One fruit of this funding is a soon-to-be-released toolkit for law enforcement agencies to train officers how to respond to scenes where children have been exposed to potentially traumatic events

Left: A binder of case referral files that Hooper and Anderson have received from the Milwaukee police department. In the year and a half the team has been operating, they have processed over 200 cases, ranging from children affected by homicide and domestic violence to more run of the mill issues. Right: A police car drives toward the District 7 station, one of three buildings where the Trauma Response Team has an office.

Jake Naughton for BuzzFeed News

In recent years there has been a newfound urgency to address childhood trauma, driven by deepened scientific understanding of what is at stake. In short, neurologists have discovered that repeated exposure to violence can cause a child’s brain to lose its ability to properly regulate stress hormones. Simultaneously, the part of the brain that activates reactions to danger is overdeveloped, and the part of the brain that controls those reactions is underdeveloped. The child becomes in a constant state of fight or flight, making them less able to control impulses, more likely to react violently to real or perceived danger, and more likely to self-medicate this constant anxiety with drugs and alcohol.

Modern understanding of trauma is rooted in a landmark 1998 study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs), which found deep correlations between negative childhood experiences and trouble with mental and physical health as an adult. People with high occurrences of childhood trauma were more likely to abuse drugs, attempt suicide, and have run-ins with the law.

A follow-up study done in Philadelphia four years ago included adversities such as neighborhood crime, experience with the foster care system, and discrimination including racism. Nearly 40% of the respondents had experienced four or more of the listed negative experiences, compared with 12.5% in the original study. Someone with a score of four or higher is seven times more likely to become an alcoholic compared with someone with a score of zero, 10 times more likely to inject illegal drugs, and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide. A study in Florida showed that over half of the incarcerated youth there had a score of four or higher.

Headlines depict urban violence as shoot-outs and gangbangs —“American carnage” — and the numbing effect is part of the problem. It’s like how someone living next to a train track learns to hear the train’s rumble as white noise, kids living with everyday trauma learn to tune it out, explains Steven Dykstra, director of TRT. “People, out of necessity, access that ability to set things aside and put them in a file and not deal with them,” he says. “And they access that in a way that is ultimately not to their benefit.”

The police approach doesn’t capture everyone who suffers from low-grade trauma, but it is a step in that direction.

The police approach doesn’t capture everyone who suffers from low-grade trauma, but it is a step in that direction. Through TRT, Anderson and Hooper are reaching clients in communities where street violence is common, and who may not connect the dots that they could benefit from outside support. Often when TRT is summoned, the incident that got the police’s attention wasn’t the only traumatic experience that that person was dealing with. I went with Hooper to visit a teenage girl being raised by grandmother, who called the police when she found sexually illicit texts and photos from an older man on the girl’s phone. During her conversations with the family, Hooper learned that a year earlier, the girl was sexually assaulted by a different man, and had been feeling depressed since. The grandmother, too, had episodes of sexual abuse in her past.

For a child to experience trauma isn’t necessarily a sentence to adult dysfunction. The most important factor is stable committed relationships with a supportive parent or other adult. Beyond that, some of this is biology; certain people are just wired to be resistant to adversity. But some factors can be fostered.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is to improve the odds that these children will develop well,” says Dykstra. “It’s not about guarantees. It’s about probabilities — it’s about odds. How well can we help them to develop? There are a lot of forces in their life that are reducing the odds on good development. What can we do to boost their odds a little bit?”

Anderson leans over to say something to Hooper during a listening session at city hall intended to bridge the gap between police and the community.

Jake Naughton for BuzzFeed News