by Kevin Dicciani
Trauma needs to be viewed as a public health matter if society is going to benefit individuals in a lasting and positive way, said Robert Reed, the executive deputy attorney general for public engagement in the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.
“Is trauma a public health crisis?” asked Reed in his lecture, held at Chestnut Hill College on Feb. 11. “Well, I certainly think it is, and I think that most of the people who do this work think it is.”
When individuals, particularly youth, encounter damaging events or circumstances, their brains often undergo significant chemical transformations, Reed said. This change can potentially contribute to their behavior, which, because the trauma fundamentally altered how they think and feel, may in turn be difficult for them to control.
As a consequence of the trauma and dramatic shift in their brain chemistry, individuals may experience mental illness, use drugs, or commit suicide, Reed said. Given the aforementioned affects the public at large, he said that society needs to provide resources to individuals to ensure they recover.
“The traumatic situations can be physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, neglect, death or loss of a loved one, life-threatening illness, a caregiver witnessing violence, domestic violence, serious injuries and accidents, bullying, and incarceration,” he said. “And post-traumatic stress means life is unpredictable, incomprehensible, and not manageable.”
Treatment facilities, government initiatives, and education programs are examples of resources that are vital to solving the problem of trauma, Reed said. On the contrary, incarcerating individuals in the hope they’ll one day recuperate fails to effectively treat individuals suffering from underlying issues, he added. He cited a recent study that found that 80 percent of adolescents in the juvenile justice system reported experiencing trauma at some point in their lives.
Statistics like the above are why the criminal justice system as a whole needs to change in a “trauma-informed way,” he said.
“The bottom line is we have people who are suffering from mental illness who are in prison,” he said. “They should have gotten some help, but they didn’t. There are many people in our prisons who are suffering from addiction or some kind of substance abuse. We should have appropriate treatment facilities to help people who are suffering from addiction, and we should have treatment centers that are not only focused on addiction services, but mental health services.”
Detailing other solutions that can assist in mitigating trauma, Reed said that government initiatives can have a major impact on both youth and adults. Currently, there is a youth-violence prevention program in Pennsylvania called “Safe2Say Something,” which the state established in 2018 after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. The program educates youth on how to spot individuals who may hurt themselves or others and urges them to submit an anonymous tip through the mobile application or website. There were 40,382 tips submitted in the program’s first year in operation, he said.
Reed, who has served as the executive deputy attorney for public engagement since 2017, oversees the Pennsylvania Attorney General Office’s Special Initiatives section. The division focuses on such matters as the opioid epidemic, gun violence, civil rights, hate crimes, sex abuse, elder abuse, cyberbullying, and campus safety.
Previously, in 2010, he was appointed executive assistant U.S. attorney for outreach in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. As part of that role, he was responsible for expanding the office’s vision of criminal justice to include initiatives focused on violence prevention, prisoner reentry, and community outreach.
Reed said it was during this time that he learned the criminal justice system was “just not competent.”
“It’s not capable of handling some of the issues that we deal with every day,” he said. “As a matter of fact, so much stuff has been forced in the criminal justice system that police are not prepared, prosecutors aren’t prepared, and judges are not trained or prepared to handle those cases.”
As an example of the sort of complexity involved with trauma and the individuals who experience it, Reed recounted a story from his days as a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia. One day he visited Graterford Prison and met a man named Shannon who was serving a life sentence for murder. Shannon told Reed that his father was an alcoholic and physically abusive toward his mother. During one incident of abuse, when Shannon was six years old, his mother shot his father in front of him and two of his siblings.
Although his father survived, Shannon said that witnessing the event changed his life. Years later, he said that he was jumped by a group of kids as a seventh grader attending school in Strawberry Mansion. From that day on, Shannon carried a gun with him to class. He was 12 years old.
“Did he commit homicide? Yes, he did. And I’m not excusing it — I'm not,” Reed said. “But the bottom line is, if you want to know why a 12-year-old boy would bring a gun to school and you want to know why he ended up going in the trajectory he did, well, you’ve got to begin with him seeing his mother shoot his father when he was six and seeing his mother beaten repeatedly by his father.”
The College’s Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation sponsored Reed’s lecture, “Do You Wonder? Is there a Root Cause of Addiction, Self-Harm, Suicide, Crime, and Violence?”
Catherine Nerney, SSJ, Ph.D., the director of the institute, thanked the nearly 100 people in attendance, saying that by coming to the event they were “tilting the scales of our world toward goodness and kindness.”
Looking ahead, Reed is hopeful that by introducing trauma-informed language and programs in the areas of criminal justice, government, healthcare, and education, the country will advance for the better.
“I really do believe that we are in the beginning of a movement that is going to change where we are, this dark place,” he said. “Because I think so many people are demanding to find answers to those critical questions of why did this person do this? Why did this happen? Well, often times it’s because of what happened in your life. And I think if we can come together in a really fundamental way to learn, really learn what empathy is and what love is and really care about each other, I think we can turn things around.”