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The children of New Orleans’ Central City were finally getting the attention they needed — then reporters lost their jobs

The children of New Orleans’ Central City were finally getting the attention they needed — then reporters lost their jobs

(Photo by Brett Duke/NOLA.com)
The Panthers youth team practices at a park in Central City, where high rates of childhood trauma persist. One in five children from Central City have witnessed a murder, and four out of 10 have seen someone shot, beaten or stabbed.
(Photo by Brett Duke/NOLA.com)

Karen Evans stood before several dozen social workers in a United Way conference room on a recent Monday. She was slightly agitated as she prepared to show them “The Children of Central City,” a documentary on how trauma impacts the long-term health, life trajectories and well-being of children growing up in one of New Orleans’ roughest neighborhoods.

Upon its release 18 months earlier, the film had sparked a citywide conversation, she explained. Suddenly, the long-unspoken topic of trauma was of interest. Billboards popped up around the city promoting mental health care for children. Elected officials gave lofty speeches on the importance of understanding traumatized kids as opposed to punishing them. In October, a 200-page report offering a roadmap of potential solutions was presented before the City Council.

Momentum seemed to be building. And then … nothing.

“Where’s the buzz now?” asked Evans, executive director of the New Orleans Children & Youth Planning Board and a member of the panel that created the exhaustive report on trauma. “Is everyone healed?”

“The Children of Central City” was a multimedia investigative series published in the summer of 2018 by The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com and funded by Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. It included the 18-minute documentary, eight feature stories, several shorter videos, including an animated explainer, and dozens of photographs. It won several national honors including the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.

Before the series, people in New Orleans rarely discussed trauma and its devastating impact on the health of children, Evans said. When adolescents acted out or struggled in school, adults were more likely to label them as “bad” as opposed to taking the time to understand what was happening in their private lives.

One of the key statistics from the series showed that one in five children from Central City had witnessed a murder, four out of 10 had seen someone shot, beaten or stabbed, a third had witnessed domestic violence, and more than half had someone close to them murdered. Given those traumatic experiences, it is difficult for children to lead healthy lives, both mentally and physically, without significant support, Evans said.

And that is the challenge the October report addressed. It laid out a meticulous plan on how New Orleans could transform itself into a trauma-informed city by offering services through public schools, the recreation department, the juvenile court system, and behavioral health providers, among others. It requested $500,000 in funding for the first 18 months. A relatively modest ask considering the cost of doing nothing, Evans said.

Seven months later, the city has yet to provide a dime, though two private organizations have pledged $125,000.

Evans remains hopeful that some public funding will eventually be provided but admits to being frustrated. For too long, New Orleans has tried to incarcerate itself out of every problem and it has never worked, she said. Something needs to change.

“The policy always seems to be, let’s take them off the streets by any means necessary and then we’ll be happy. But we never think about the return,” she said. “You’ve taken an angry kid, put him in an angry place, and you’re releasing an even angrier kid. So, now you’ve likely increased the outcome for that kid to become a greater criminal.”

“The Children of Central City” has had an impact in other areas. After reading the series, the Pincus Family Foundation — a Philadelphia-based nonprofit — awarded Tulane University a $550,000 grant to create child-focused, violence prevention programs in partnership with community organizations. 

As for the team that put together the project — writers Jonathan Bullington and Richard A. Webster, photographer Brett Duke, videographer Emma Scott and digital strategist Haley Correll — we were all laid off a year later, after our paper, the Times-Picayune, was purchased by our competitor, the New Orleans Advocate. And we were not alone. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of working journalists dropped 25%, from 114,000 to 86,000, according to the Pew Research Center.

It felt, however, that we lost more than our jobs. We lost the opportunity to keep shining a light on vulnerable communities in our city and state, to tell the stories that were all-too-often lost in the crush of shrinking newsrooms and unrelenting news cycles.

As seasoned journalists, we know our stories won’t miraculous solve the world’s ills, but at the very least they can compel people to think about neighborhoods, families and people that might not otherwise enter their consciousness. And that’s what we set out to do with “The Children of Central City.”

As local journalism struggles to survive, will those stories still be told? And who will look out for the children of Central City, and elsewhere in New Orleans, who need extra help?

It felt that we lost more than our jobs. We lost the opportunity to keep shining a light on vulnerable communities in our city and state, to tell the stories that were all-too-often lost in the crush of shrinking newsrooms and unrelenting news cycles.

In October, three juveniles were shot one block from where the Panthers youth football team, which we spotlighted in our series, practice. None of the players we profiled were hurt. But maybe they saw the shooting. Maybe they heard the gunfire or the wailing sirens of first responders. Maybe one of their friends was shot or a family member was involved.

Research tells us traumatic events can change the way children’s brains work, increasing their aggression and impulsiveness, and decreasing their ability to retain information, develop empathy and build self-esteem. If untreated, it can lead to expulsion from school and juvenile incarceration, perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty.

If any of the Panthers were exposed to the recent shooting, there were important questions that needed to be asked. How did it affect them? Who was helping them work through the trauma? What services was the city providing? And if the answer to that last question was “none,” somebody needs to hold the mayor and city council accountable.

In the barren and broken landscape of the 21st century newspaper industry, however, not every issue can be covered in-depth. There aren’t enough resources. Sometimes all you can expect is a quick headline and a breaking news blurb. 

After our paper shut down, the team responsible for “The Children of Central City” scattered. Bullington is an investigative reporter at the Louisville Courier in Kentucky. Scott is a senior video journalist at the Wall Street Journal in New York. Webster, Duke and Correll remain in New Orleans. Webster is freelancing for national publications such as the Washington Post and the Guardian. Duke is working as a freelance photographer for the Associated Press, among other outlets. And Correll is social media manager at American Red Cross.

We all still push to do important work. That will never change. But as a team, there is a lingering feeling that we still had so much more to accomplish in New Orleans. Jerome Temple, who coached the Panthers football team, said that by the time many of his players became teenagers, they were already deep into the street life. He estimated that at least half of the roster we wrote about could end up dead or in prison.

We had planned on tracking the players’ as the years progressed. With that no longer possible  after we lost our jobs, we can only hope the city has heard the call of the community and will do its part to ensure they are all safe and healthy with bright futures ahead.

**

Read the stories and watch “The Children of Central City” here.

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Wow! So powerful

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