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Newport News social workers are using hospital visits to break cycles of violence

Photo by Pressmaster via Shutterstock. Social workers with Hand in Hand are reaching victims of violence right after their injury in the hopes of stopping further violence.
Photo by Pressmaster via Shutterstock. Social workers with Hand in Hand are reaching victims of violence right after their injury in the hopes of stopping further violence.

In the emergency room at Riverside Regional Medical Center, a pair of women constantly watch the tracking board to see who’s coming in. 

They’re not nurses or doctors. They’re social workers with a program called Hand in Hand.

For the past three years, they’ve been working with violence victims and their families, offering help far beyond the typical purview of the hospital.

“We want to promote their healing and well-being in a very well-rounded way,” said Annie Wallner, a Riverside employee who leads the program. “So addressing issues like safe housing, making sure that there's a good safety plan when they're discharged, making sure they feel safe, going home, they know where their support comes from and where they have access to services and things like that.”

Some of the aid is financial - they help cover procedures, follow-ups, or things like rent, food or clothing once they’ve been discharged.

The idea is that giving people proper support can break cycles of trauma and violence. 

Because of how violence tends to concentrate, victims of violence are much more likely to become a victim again in the future. Working in the hospital lets counselors get to them immediately. 

Studies of hospital-based intervention programs like Hand in Hand show the rate of people re-injured by violence or committing further violence drops dramatically after an interaction.

Christopher Stephens was shot in the stomach two years ago. He doesn’t have any family in the area and didn’t really have anyone to lean on when he showed up at Riverside.

“She had brought my spirits up,” Stephens said of Wallner. “I cried a little bit, you know, sat there. And then I got out of the hospital and every visit from there, she was there by my side.”

Hand in Hand helped Stephens with rent for a few months when he couldn’t work. 

Now he’s back on his feet, working as an electrician. He credits Wallner, who he calls his “angel.”

Wallner said they’ve had to talk people down and convince them not to retaliate after they’ve been injured. That can be a big driver in the cycle of violence begetting violence. 

Ideally, she said, Hand in Hand can start a different kind of cycle.

“It becomes this ripple effect,” Wallner said. “And you don't just touch the lives of one person, but that person. And then the choices that they make affect everybody. It affects the community, it affects their household, it affects their significant other or their parents or their children.” 

Homicide rates nationally have spiked since the start of the pandemic, reaching a 25-year high last year.

A series of high-profile shootings this spring around Hampton Roads have kept community violence at the forefront of conversations. In Newport News, eleven people have been killed in shootings so far this year.

That’s part of what prompted Newport News leaders to ask residents what they feel poses the greatest risks to the city.

More than 2,000 Newport News residents responded to a public safety survey. Untreated mental health issues topped the list of safety concerns.

Younger people in particular flagged mental health as a problem.

Experts nationwide have been warning of a growing youth mental health crisis for years. It accelerated dramatically during the pandemic and has strained available resources.

Steven Keener heads the Center for Crime, Equity and Justice Research and Policy at Christopher Newport University, which is conducting the survey with Newport News.

He said the other top issues included concerns about poverty and unsupervised youths potentially fueling violence.

“I know a lot of focus right now is on gun violence,” Keener said. “Homicides and gangs and fighting, they were within the top tier of concern cited by respondents, but they were cited less frequently than mental health concerns, poverty concerns or unsupervised youth concerns.”

That’s not surprising because of who was taking the survey, he said.

Respondents were 60% white and were more likely to have some college education than the average. Gun violence tends to cluster in communities that are poorer and more heavily populated by minority residents.

That means the people taking the survey are less likely to be living in areas where gun violence is clustered.

Keener said they’re planning further analysis to get a better understanding of concerns city-wide.

Newport News plans to use the information to guide funding and intervention strategies. It’s opened up grant applications for community groups like Hand in Hand with plans to tamp down community violence.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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