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Four St. Louis hospitals work to end cycle of violence that keeps sending them patients

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The four trauma centers in St. Louis will try to keep people out of their hospitals with a new violence prevention program.

It’s an expansion of the Victims of Violence program at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which pairs social workers with children who have been beaten, stabbed or shot to work on anger management, coping skills and risk reduction.

The St. Louis Area Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Program will add social workers at Barnes-Jewish, SSM Health St. Louis University and SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s hospitals.

The social workers will visit with injured children and adults in the hospitals, and then as often as weekly for six months to a year after they are released. Each victim will set goals, which could involve education, job training or relationships.

The project is funded by a $1.6 million, three-year grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health and is sponsored by the Institute for Public Health at Washington University.

The hospital stay offers a “teaching moment” to interrupt the cycle of violence, said William Powderly, the institute’s director.

“If they survive it, it can be a time of some reflection,” Powderly said. “Hopefully by changing their trajectory you’re preventing future episodes of violence.”

There are 86 active patients in the Victims of Violence program at Children’s; about half are gunshot victims, said Margie Batek, a social worker who developed the program in 2012.

None of the children who have completed the program have returned to the hospital with injuries, but six children who declined to participate later died from violence, Batek said.

“If we don’t intervene early when their very first visits are happening, we will continue to see them come back and the violence will escalate,” Batek said. “They will be more injured or they will injure someone else. If we do nothing, we know they are going to come back hurt.”

The rate of repeat patients in the trauma unit at St. Louis Children’s is about 10 percent, said Dr. Martin Keller, trauma medical director.

“Sometimes we X-ray kids and you can see bullets from a previous shooting,” Keller said.

Washington University launched a gun violence initiative after the 2014 shooting death of Chelsea Harris, 16, a St. Louis high school student whom Risa Zwerling Wrighton, wife of Chancellor Mark Wrighton, had mentored for 10 years.

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