Fighting for the Children of Louisiana

For children growing up poor and Black in New Orleans, it is akin to being at war. According to the Orleans Parish School Board, 60% of children in New Orleans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, rates more commonly found in post-combat veterans. In a survey of children in Central City by the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies (IWES), results were even more profound: one in five children were witnesses to domestic violence, four in 10 had seen someone shot, stabbed, or beaten, and more than half had someone close to them murdered. Given the extreme levels of trauma children face in New Orleans, they are 4.5 times more likely to show signs of serious emotional disturbance than their peers nationwide.

Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR), a BCM grantee, sees this every day in their clients – children who have encountered the juvenile justice system in the state. These children, acting out in response to untreated mental health or trauma issues, are forced into systems that further traumatize them, with no healing avenues available. Executive Director, Aaron Clark-Rizzio, says this is because society has traded long-term healing, accountability, and change for much easier, but significantly less effective, short-term incarceration.

Tony Critelli-O’Donnell and Lana Charles, Social Workers at Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights

Instead of incarceration, many justice system-involved children would greatly benefit from mental health care access. But this approach is not without its structural challenges. “Needing parental consent to receive services is one barrier,” says Tony Critelli-O’Donnell, a social worker with LCCR. “Long wait lists and lack of staffing at some clinics is also challenging. Some children are waitlisted and never hear back from the provider again.” LCCR is adept at working with children and families to understand their individual needs and then identifying what community-based programs, including mental health care, might be most useful to them and work within their unique set of barriers. Working with children through their misbehavior in the moment, rather than several months down the line, is incredibly important to a successful outcome. LCCR ensures that rather than being detached from the process, the children are a direct participant. Further adding to LCCR’s success is their partnership with BCM, according to Mr. Clark-Rizzio. “BCM is one of our largest local partners, which has further allowed us to access some of our national partnerships.”

The funding BCM provides specifically helps LCCR focus on fighting child trafficking, in addition to the other work they do. Addressing the core issues of child trafficking means more time is spent on addressing mental health conditions, unstable housing, poverty, and racism – all factors impacting system involvement and how many children are at risk of trafficking. “Because systemic racism is the root cause of so many inequities that Black youth and families face, it is critical that we address changes with reformed policies and action,” says LCCR social worker Lana Charles. “Just as it is very difficult to find services for our youth involved in the juvenile system, it is equally difficult for victims of child trafficking to access sufficient placement options and mental health services specific to their needs. We recognize that healthy youth development and positive outcomes result from a community that is tackling these inequities together.”

When individual needs are met and addressed, and the root causes of trauma-related criminality are stripped away, all that is left behind is a vulnerable child. LCCR helps these children to realize a future that may have never seemed possible, guiding the next generation to succeed.