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Helping Kids Overcome Trauma

Monday, November 28, 2016
A conversation with Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr.; Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason; and Joe Torre, Founder and Chair of the Safe at Home Foundation, adapted from the Oct. 21 launch of the Changing Minds national public awareness campaign.

Changing Minds Campaign Poster

Q.: What is Changing Minds?
AAG Mason: Changing Minds is a public education campaign to raise awareness about children’s exposure to violence and to inspire public action to address it. The Department of Justice, led by our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, collaborated on the campaign with Futures Without Violence and the Ad Council. The ad agency Wunderman created the materials pro bono.
Q.: What are the materials?
AAG Mason: We’ve created short films and digital and print content intended to reach adults who interact with children and youth in grades K–12. The campaign’s website, ChangingMindsNOW.org, includes two original videos that share stories of adults who were exposed to violence as children. It also includes an informational video that illustrates the impact of violence on children’s brain development and a toolkit for schools, communities and other practitioners.
Karol V. Mason, Assistant Attorney GeneralQ.: Sec. King and Mr. Torre, what brought you into this effort?
Sec. King: I know the difference that caring adults can make in the lives of children. I’m living proof of that. My teachers helped make school a refuge from the chaos and uncertainty I experienced after the death of my mother when I was eight and the confusing and scary decline of my father who was suffering from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s, and who died when I was twelve. When I became an educator, I accepted it as my responsibility to do everything I possibly could to meet the needs – academic and otherwise – of individual students
Joe Torre: I grew up in an abusive home, the youngest of five children. I wasn’t physically abused myself, but my mother suffered an almost daily threat of it from my father. If he didn’t like the food she made, he would throw it against the wall. He used to make her get up in the middle of the night to cook for friends he brought home. I lived in constant fear and felt like the abuse was my fault. It left me feeling ashamed and worthless for many years. I decided that no child should have to be exposed to that kind of treatment. That’s what led me to create the Safe at Home Foundation.
Q.: Why the need for a national campaign?
AAG Mason: Because the problem is so big. Almost three out of every five children in this country have encountered some form of violence, crime or abuse during the previous year, either directly as victims or indirectly as witnesses. Almost half report suffering more than one type of direct or witnessed victimization. These experiences leave deep physical and emotional scars. They even affect brain development in a way that can shape these kids for the rest of their lives.
Q.: The materials for Changing Minds say they are designed to reach caring adults and professionals, teachers among them, who interact with children. What can they do to address this problem?
Joe Torre, Founder and Chair of the Safe at Home FoundationSec. King: Kids want to know that the adults in their lives are not going to abandon them, that we’re going to care for them. It’s our job as educators to be there for our students. Schools that serve our most at-risk students need to have additional resources to ensure they’re meeting children where they are and helping them to reach higher.
Joe Torre: When I was growing up, no one talked about domestic violence. I certainly didn’t because I was too afraid. But things are different today. We no longer consider violence in the home to be a private matter, because it isn’t. It affects us all. The more we talk about it and get this issue out into the open, the more likely we are to find those kids who need help.
Q.: Where did the idea for Changing Minds originate?
AAG Mason: The impetus for Changing Minds comes out of a Justice Department initiative called Defending Childhood, which was established by former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2010. My office has awarded grants to support local efforts to improve the response to children who encounter violence. We’ve funded research and evaluation. And we’ve supported public outreach. Former Attorney General Holder also appointed a National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, which was co-chaired by Joe Torre and by Bob Listenbee, who now serves as the administrator of my agency’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. One of the task force recommendations was to create a national public awareness campaign to draw attention to the issue. Changing Minds is the answer to that call.
John B. King, Jr., Secretary of EducationQ.: What role can the rest of us play?
Sec. King: Kids want us to be demanding and clear, consistent and truthful, to love them but to take them – and their behavior – seriously. I remember one student from my teaching days. He was killed by someone a bit older than him in a case of mistaken identity. I think about the fact that, at one point in his life, the young man who killed him was probably a bubbly five-year-old, waving his hand in the air, eager to answer a teacher’s question. I think about whether we as a society or as educators could have done something that would have changed the arc of that young man’s life. That’s why educators, mentors, school counselors and psychologists and other caring adults are so critically important. Our obligations go well beyond teaching academic subjects. Our students are not just students. They are our children and we have to get to know and understand them. We have to build relationships with them and help them in whatever ways we can.
Joe Torre: I think the most important thing we can do is to be there for kids. Make sure they know that abuse and violence are not okay, and that they are not alone. I lived for years with a sense of fear and helplessness because I didn’t know where to turn, and it was the loneliest feeling in the world. We have to make sure kids know it’s okay to speak out.
AAG Mason: I would add that while exposure to violence can leave lasting damage if untreated, kids are incredibly resilient and capable of overcoming even the most traumatic experiences if they are given the right care and support. Changing Minds describes five everyday gestures that adults can use to make a difference. They can celebrate, comfort, collaborate with, listen to, and inspire children to overcome trauma. These are things every one of us can do. We all have a role to play.
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