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UTHSC’s Dr. Altha Stewart to Lead County Initiative to Reduce Childhood Exposure to Violence and Trauma

Dr. Altha Stewart talks with the media about assuming leadership of Defending Childhood Shelby.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center  assumed responsibility Thursday for a community initiative aimed at improving the lives of all children in Shelby County.

The Defending Childhood Initiative, which is aimed at reducing the impact of violence and trauma on children in the community, was transferred from Shelby County government to UTHSC during a morning press conference in the Student-Alumni Center.

Altha Stewart, MD, associate professor of psychiatry in the College of Medicine and director of UTHSC’s Center for Health In Justice Involved Youth, will lead the federally funded initiative that has been operating in Shelby County for roughly five years. Dr. Stewart, a psychiatrist and nationally recognized expert on the effects of trauma and violence on children, will direct Phase II of the initiative, which will now be called Defending Childhood Shelby.

The initiative will expand its mission to include creating a trauma-informed culture in the community that focuses on preventing violence and trauma to children; providing help to children exposed to violence; training educators, law enforcement, health providers and families in strategies for reducing childhood violence and offering peaceful options for resolving conflict; and creating a climate that supports children and fosters collaboration among service providers.

“I’m a proud Memphian right now,” Dr. Stewart told the gathering of community leaders that included Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. “We have a convergence of resources and support for this work that I don’t think we’ve ever had in Memphis and Shelby County. We’ve got a mayor who’s committed and knows and understands what we’re talking about, we’ve got an academic medical center taking this on as a cause, and we’ve  got a community that is hungry to learn how we can be of help. This is the time to make the change that we need to make.”

Studies show more than 50 percent of American children have been exposed to violence in their homes or neighborhoods, and that exposure could contribute to negative behaviors in children and a cycle of violence in the future, according to Dr. Stewart. “We are excited to build on the great work already done, and to continue to inform and help our families in Shelby County, as the work of the grant transitions to UTHSC.”

Shelby County is one of eight sites nationwide chosen by the U.S. Department of Justice for the initiative when it was created to address the impact of violence on children. The first phase laid the groundwork for the program in Hickory Hill and the Raleigh-Frayser area, getting those communities involved in prevention and connecting families to professionals for help.

Dr. Stewart said Phase II will involve working to embed trauma-informed solutions in the entire community and to build a solid network in the community so that when federal funding expires, services and support for youth won’t end. “Our children can never lose our hope for them,” she said. “We are the road to hope for these children, so we’ve got to build capacity in our community to keep the hope alive.”

She acknowledged that the work will take time. “We need to change the culture of understanding and begin to encourage people to see alternatives to violence,” she said. “Starting with children and helping them learn to resolve conflict without violence will be the first step.”

A new public education campaign focuses on reducing childhood exposure to trauma in our community.

A new public education campaign was unveiled at the gathering. It includes public service announcements, literature, signage and outreach to encourage the community to get behind the effort to reduce violence and trauma experienced by youth.

“Every child should have a trajectory for life that is positive and productive,” said David Stern, MD, Robert Kaplan Executive Dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine. “The collaboration between the university, the county and the community — that’s the nature of how you make progress.”

After the press conference, Dr. Stewart hosted more than 200 mental health providers, community advocates and service providers for “Trauma Through a Lens of Culture,” a daylong conference at UTHSC focused on childhood trauma and its impact on mental health and behavior in later years.

Keynote speaker was Isaiah B. Pickens, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant director of the Service Systems Program of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

Melanie Funchess, Director of Community Engagement for the Mental Health Association of Rochester, also spoke at the conference.