A Healing Tree Grows in Baltimore

Starting this past summer in Baltimore, Maryland, 14,000 city employees are being trained to provide trauma-informed care to the community. A Trauma-Informed Task Force was created to shift policies in city agencies, including those who work in criminal justice and housing, to learn de-escalation and mindfulness techniques. The goal, as one library director put it in a Baltimore TV report, “is to understand the community [we] service better, and to be able to respond with better resources and connection.”

“It is a way of being. It is not really a program,” explained William Kellibrew, director of the city’s Office of Youth and Trauma Services. “We are integrating skill sets on how to interact with each other.”

Kellibrew was 10 when he saw his mother and brother killed in a murder-suicide domestic violence attack. A newspaper account at the time referred to the young boy as “unhurt” in the attack — discounting the severe trauma he endured. Now 46, he explains the city mandate: “We can either perpetuate trauma, or we can perpetuate healing. … Trauma can be dehumanizing. And it is important for us to bring humanity back into the space.”

Baltimore became the first city in the country to legislate trauma-informed care when it passed the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act in 2020. The intent is to prioritize every person, including their pain. As Zeke Cohen, the city councilperson spearheading the effort, acknowledged, “In Baltimore, city government has been, if not complicit, then in some cases the driver of trauma within our city.”

Large numbers of people are impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as the death or incarceration of a parent, domestic violence, living with a caregiver with substance use issues, or witnessing neighborhood violence and police brutality. Cohen notes that trauma leads to violence, and violence leads to trauma. With trauma-informed care, people are taught to recognize signs and symptoms, to respond appropriately, and to avoid re-traumatizing.

The Healing City Act was created after a school shooting. City officials listened to students at a hearing with the intention of funding additional armed school officers. Students testified that the council should instead be discussing how to address violence before it happens and how to reduce re-traumatization.

In April 2021, the Maryland legislature unanimously passed a state version, called Healing Maryland’s Trauma Act. The legislation prioritizes trauma-responsive services throughout government agencies and establishes a Commission on Trauma-Informed Care.