I am an adoptive mother of three nonwhite children, each with a history of early trauma. My oldest child, a beautiful black boy, will be a man some day. That terrifies me.
Not for the typical reasons a parent might worry: Will my daughter get into her dream college? Will my son end up lonely and single? No, my fears are more along the lines of: Will my smart, creative boy survive until adulthood? Will his difficult start in life predispose him to panic and run if questioned by a police officer? Will he get a handle on his impulsiveness before he faces life-altering consequences?
Stories of police brutality surface every week, and research on the long-term impact of childhood trauma is finally getting mainstream media attention. But the national conversations on these topics rarely overlap. What if we had cities where the police were not only equipped with body cameras but also trained to understand the impacts and markers of childhood trauma? What if our cops were armed with the knowledge that the average black man is likely to have experienced adverse childhood experiences with lifelong repercussions?
Like so many others, my boy has the double burden of being a black male in America and having experienced trauma early in life. At his recent annual checkup, the pediatrician cheerfully reported that based on his growth chart, he might end up around 6 feet tall. This is not purely welcome news when every inch of growth brings him one step closer to being viewed as a threat.
CBS on March 11 aired an episode of 60 Minutes concerning trauma-informed care, a treatment mode that leads with the question “What happened to this child?” instead of the more knee-jerk “What is wrong with this child?”
The 60 Minutes episode ran about a month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a shooting perpetrated by Nikolas Cruz, a man with an early life marked by trauma. The episode also ran just one week before the death of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man killed by the police in his grandmother’s Sacramento, Calif., backyard.
Clark had one thing in common with Cruz: a history of trauma, difficult circumstances outside of his control. Cruz’s dysfunctional past led him to commit an egregious, ugly crime, while Clark was shot dead by the police. Cruz opened fire on innocent students and ran from the police, but he was apprehended and safely brought into custody, where he is getting legal representation.
Might the fates of Cruz and Clark have differed if their skin tones were reversed?
Trauma leaves its victims with invisible scars, wounds that carry consequences and may even alter their brain wiring. My son is 9, and he still has the fleeting advantage of being seen as a child — vulnerable, malleable, deserving of support and help. We are utilizing every therapeutic service available to help him catch up to his peers in emotional development and self-regulation.
But even with our best efforts, my boy will likely enter the adult world more fragile than his peers. He will have to face more suspicion, harsher treatment, and the presumption of guilt.
By the time he reaches his full height, will the police charged with protecting him know that adults who experienced trauma as children may behave differently than adults who did not? Will they be informed about the “fight, flight, or freeze” response so often triggered in traumatized individuals facing a perceived threat or frightening situation?
We are raising our son right outside of Philadelphia, a city where just last week two black men were arrested for sitting in a Starbucks while waiting for a friend before they made a purchase. Fortunately, these men had the presence of mind and self-control to allow themselves to be detained peacefully, making no protest in the face of what was apparently unjust profiling. I tremble to think of how a grown-up version of my little boy would have reacted in the same situation.
When Stephon Clark’s predictable fear response kicked in on that fateful night last month, the very forces entrusted with protecting our most susceptible became the aggressors. We need more than trauma-informed care for children in crisis. We need trauma-informed policing for the adults those children will become. We need a police force trained to view men who were once in my son’s shoes not as “typical perpetrators” but as “likely victims.”
Tet George is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Glenside with her husband and three kids.