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Trauma teams reach out to crime-riddled neighborhoods

It’s an image Dijanira DeAndrade will never forget, no matter how hard she tries: her then-7-year-old son bleeding on a sidewalk after being hit by a stray bullet while riding his bike in Dorchester in May.

“I don’t stop thinking about it,” DeAndrade said recently. “I keep picturing that moment . . . me running down and finding him on the floor.”

It wasn’t DeAndrade’s first close encounter with violence.

As a teenager, DeAndrade, who is now 28, was caught in the middle of a gunfight as she walked with her mother down Bowdoin Street. She recalled the way her mother trembled with fear, tears streaming down her cheeks, as they waited in a store for the gunfire to stop. Another time, someone started shooting outside of her mother’s home. She didn’t know whether anyone was injured, but several neighboring houses were hit, DeAndrade said.

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As the lifelong effects of trauma are becoming more widely recognized, the city has created a program to help residents who are repeatedly exposed to violence.

“The chronic exposure to violence does affect individuals and families in ways they are not even aware of” and can cause feelings of helplessness and anxiety, said Dr. Huy Nguyen, interim executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. When combined with other issues such as poverty, the effects of trauma can also lead to health complications including obesity and heart disease, Nguyen said.

To help combat those effects, the city launched an initiative with community health centers in the neighborhoods most affected by violent crime.

In the spring, the city stationed Trauma Recovery Teams — trauma-trained clinicians and a community worker — in each of eight community centers in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and Mattapan. The clinician and community worker provide counseling, organize peer support groups, and offer assistance with shelter, food, and health care.

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“These health centers have a broader definition of their role working in the community, promoting resilience and healing,” said Catherine Fine, the director of violence prevention at the Public Health Commission.

The teams began taking clients in March.

Team members are deployed within up to 72 hours of an incident, Nguyen said. The trauma teams are tapped into a system that alerts them whenever there is a shooting, homicide, suicide, accident, or any other traumatic incident.

After Divan Silva was shot May 24 while riding his bike to a corner store on Bowdoin Street near his grandmother’s home, a trauma team and representatives from other city agencies contacted DeAndrade. They learned that DeAndrade, a mother of two boys, had been living in shelters in Brockton and Weymouth for five years. The family needed a place to call home.

When helping victims of violence, “You may think mental health and counseling, but it starts with concrete needs,” said Phillomin Laptiste, associate director of the Bowdoin Street Health Center.

City officials and staff at the Bowdoin Street Health Center helped secure an apartment in Dorchester for DeAndrade. She and Silva, who survived and is now 8, also received counseling at the health center after the shooting. DeAndrade said she stopped the counseling because of scheduling conflicts but also acknowledged that she had little faith that the counseling would help.

“There’s no point in talking about how I feel,” DeAndrade said. “No one can do anything about it. I’ve been through so much.”

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And about two weeks after her son was shot, a teenager she knew well from the neighborhood, Jonathan Dos Santos, was shot to death, allegedly by two other teenagers as he rode his bike to a relative’s house.

Those who are affected by traumatic experiences tend to need ongoing support, Nguyen, of the public health commission, said, and the goal of the trauma teams is to continue providing services long after “the story of an incident has died down.”

DeAndrade’s repeated exposure to violence is not uncommon, according to city health officials. Forty-six percent of the 480 people who have received services from the trauma teams this year said they have been exposed to multiple incidents of violence in the community, according to data provided to the Globe by the Boston Public Health Commission. The Commission defines “chronic exposure” to violence as experiencing multiple traumatic events or dealing with a single type of traumatic event over a prolonged period of time.

Most of the trauma teams’ clients are black or Latino and are 17 years old or younger.

At a City Council hearing in October, Nguyen said 48 percent of high school students in the city know someone who has been shot or killed.

After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, many victims received counseling and other trauma-related services, leading some to call for similar assistance for city residents who cope with traumatic experiences every day.

“The bombing highlighted not just the ability to respond to a terrorist event but also that there is ongoing trauma in communities of color,” Nguyen said.

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City officials said there are currently no plans to expand the teams, which were funded this year by federal grants and $730,000 of city funds.


Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.