Reporter



Mother faced daughter, and social worker Carla Cuellar sat in between, at the sticky kitchen table on a Friday night. Three years ago, the sixteen-year-old had been raped. She could not bring herself to testify, so her attacker remained free, while the girl did the time. She had been in and out of a group home, was bunking school and disappearing from the apartment overnight.

Her mother was ready to thrust her back into the state’s arms and the girl was ready to go. But the mother remembered how Carla had helped her daughter after the assault and she reached out again. Mother busied herself with the Family Court form to have her daughter officially declared wayward. Carla beamed all the gentle force of her four-foot-eleven-self at the girl: “What’s going on?” she asked.

The girl stared down at the Styrofoam cup in her hands, as though the answer — or an escape route — floated in her Pepsi. The latter seemed unlikely. Posted discreetly by the door was Officer Jeremy Doucette, Cuellar’s partner in crime prevention. Five nights a week, the pair patrols the streets of South Providence, Doucette looking to bust criminals, Cuellar seeking to arrest the slow spread of poison that crime injects into the lives of young victims and witnesses at the moment of trauma.

This Friday night, Cuellar and Doucette interrupted their rounds to respond to the mother’s plea for help. The girl’s jaw slowly relaxed its defiant posture. Her school was too big, she complained. Her mother tried to keep her a prisoner. Cuellar agreed that having the teen declared wayward was a good way to connect the girl to mental health and other services. She promised to investigate a transfer to a smaller school.  

“You’ve got to keep that court date,” she warned, as she collected the paperwork. “Let’s focus on solutions,” she added brightly. “Solutions.”

Six years ago, the Providence Police and Family Service of Rhode Island, a social welfare agency, entered into an unusual partnership that mixed law enforcement with social work. The target would be children exposed to violent crime and the goal would be to heal their lives before they graduated to an adulthood of dysfunction.

In October, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention published the results of the first comprehensive national survey of children’s exposure to violence. Overall, about 60 percent of children seventeen and younger reported witnessing violence; more than one-quarter had seen it in their homes, schools and communities; more than a third had been the victim of some sort of assault during the past year.

The effects can be widespread and long-lasting. A second study by health insurer Kaiser Permanente found that the greater the childhood exposure to violence, the more likely the adult will smoke, use IV drugs, suffer heart disease, diabetes, obesity, unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and alcoholism. In short, it concluded: “One does not ‘just get over’ some things, not even fifty years later.”

Colonel Dean Esserman helped develop the partnership program in the early 1990s with therapists from the Yale Child Study Center during his stint as assistant police chief in New Haven. The partnership began its attempt to head off the long-term consequences of violence with some revelations about the shortcomings of police work and therapy.

“What we’ve learned is that traditional mental health services cannot fully address the needs of children caught up in violent circumstance,” says Dr. Steven Marans, who worked with Esserman in New Haven and still heads the partnership there. “We aren’t likely to see anything but the tip of the iceberg and not until years later. Who is? The police were an obvious resource. They were the only ones making house calls twenty-four seven. We’ve also learned that we can provide together what we cannot separately and alone.”

Similar programs are now offered in more than twenty communities in the U.S. and abroad — all requiring mental health workers and police officers to be cross-trained. The Providence initiative mobilizes on-call clinicians for emergencies; an $180,000 four-year Department of Justice grant supports ongoing care for young crime victims; a city grant pays for Cuellar’s second-shift patrols. Every Tuesday, Family Service Vice President Susan Erstling attends the police command staff meeting.

“The first thing we all learned is the level of danger police deal with. You are walking into a high-risk, fragile scenario,” Erstling says. “We learned a great deal of respect for the police.” 

The respect is mutual. Cuellar, a native of Bolivia, is as much in demand for her skills as a translator as a social worker. And, on this Friday night, Doucette’s radio occasionally crackles with a request for her presence.

“We drive alone and I was a little apprehensive to have someone looked upon as touchy-feely,” Doucette admitted. “But I think everyone’s jumped on board. We see the difference it makes. If we go on a domestic, the woman will sit down and tell Carla her whole life story. I wouldn’t get any of that.”

Even Cuellar wasn’t totally sold on its value until the night she was called to a domestic disturbance. While the police questioned the adults, Cuellar tended to the three children in the other room. One volunteered that his father had a gun —  which happened to be in the room where the children waited.

“That’s when it hit me — hey, this could actually work,” she recalls.

After a year as partners, Doucette and Cuellar exhibit an easy camaraderie, joking about snacks and each other, the way compatible workmates do. The whole enterprise runs on trust, says Esserman, who has made it into another cornerstone of the Providence Police Department’s community policing efforts.
 
“A lot of policing is proactive and done in partnerships. These non-traditional partnerships are becoming traditional. But I don’t believe they would be sustained because the police chief says do it. They have to prove their worth.”
 
The program has powerful fans. Corinne Russo, director of the state’s Department of Elderly Affairs, says that it has transformed the legally mandated twenty-four-hour abuse hotline from a telephone recording to an actual after-hours response. Mayor David Cicilline has been known to call the clinical team himself, when residents bring their problems to night-time community meetings.

“The single most powerful tool to reduce crime is not a fancy computer — it’s the trust of the community,” Cicilline says.

In informal surveys conducted by Family Service, the program has gotten high marks from the community and the police department’s management. There has been little hard research on whether these interventions in childhood lead to better adult lives, but some victims can attest to the immediate benefits. Jade was eleven years old when a guest preacher at her church repeatedly assaulted her on an extended visit. Cuellar was there for the first police visit and when her attacker was convicted. She connected Jade to a counselor, who keeps in touch, despite her move to another state.
 
“When Carla came to my house, I felt a little bit free. Finally, someone was on my side to release my heart,” Jade recalls. She now plays on a soccer team, sings in the school choir and nurses her dream of becoming a fashion designer. Without Family Service, she says, “I would have been real big damage. I would have been ending up on the street or out of control or doing bad things because of my anger.”

The second shift that Friday night is a yawner. Doucette and Cuellar drive ceaselessly up and around the streets of South Providence, but net only a couple of 911 hang-up checks. There are no immediate crimes to stop, let alone ones that might be perpetrated in the distant future by today’s young victim of violence. The mayhem will no doubt erupt on the third shift, or the next night. But when no business is the point of your business, quiet is a good thing.

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