Trauma: The Silenced Poverty of Camden, NJ

A police officer stands at the doorway of 1415 Kaighn Ave., in Camden, N.J., Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, after police in Camden
A police officer stands at the doorway of 1415 Kaighn Ave., in Camden, N.J., Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, after police in Camden say a 2-year-old boy was decapitated, apparently by his mother, and his head left in the freezer of their home before woman fatally stabbed herself. Chevonne Thomas, 33, called 911 just after midnight to say something had happened to her child and it "sounded like she had done it," Camden County Prosecutor's Office spokesman Jason Laughlin said. Officers found Zahree Thomas' body on the first floor of the home and the boy's head in the freezer. (Photo/Mel Evans)

Imagine that 5,600 people have been murdered in New York City so far in 2012. People from every part of the city are shot, stabbed, burned, and beat to death at a record-breaking rate. A two-year-old is decapitated alive after his mother tells the 911 operator she didn't take her Prozac and then takes her own life.

If this actually happened in New York City, the storyline would dominate every headline, TV show, and political debate this year. People would be up in arms, resources would be mobilized and immediate action would be expected and demanded. There would be no end to the outrage.

Tragically though, it is happening here in America -- less than 100 miles away from New York City in Camden, New Jersey.

Camden has seen an unprecedented murder rate in 2012. In a city with only 77,000 residents, there have been 54 murders. That's the highest murder rate in the country. If New York City had the same murder rate, there would be 5,654 people dead -- twice that of the World Trade Center bombings. In Chicago, it would be 1,857. The rate of violence here is extraordinary.

And yet, there is little outrage about Camden. It is rarely mentioned neither in the news nor by our political leaders at a local, state, or national level. In July, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had the flags flown at half-staff for the Colorado theater shooting victims. That same month was the deadliest of the year for Camden, and yet our state flags never lowered for our own residents. The Philadelphia Daily News, the local paper of the workingman, is ambivalent in its recent headline, "Is there any hope for Camden?"

The difference is that unlike New York, Chicago and many other big cities that face violence in the streets, the entire city of Camden is poor. It's not just poor, it's immersed in poverty. Poverty that is endemic, piercing and devastating to the human spirit. Neighborhoods in Camden are broke -- with crumbling infrastructure, abandoned houses and crime.

Worse, though, is what this poverty means to the people who live here. Poverty itself is trauma-inducing and threatens the daily existence of life. People are evicted, electricity is turned off, there is not enough food and drugs are sold on street corners (Camden has an estimated 170 such corners). Compounding this trauma is the fact that these circumstances destabilize people and directly produce violence, which, in turn, results in even more trauma.

For many, like the mother who went off her Prozac and allegedly murdered her child, emotional wounds caused by a lifetime of constant stress and the struggle to survive, create biological and psychological inhibitors to normal lives. Like the much heralded "Debt Clock," we also have a "Poverty Clock" that continues to climb, indicating the toll that is being wrought on people. It can be seen in the lives of America's growing number of disaffected youth. It can be measured in high school dropout rates, record number of assaults, children being raised by children, and the unbridled rage that spills forth over everyday occurrences.

Insidiously, the Poverty Clock ticks go unheard. Today's urban poverty is itself traumatic, but the conditioned normalization that is caused by society's silence has an exponential impact. In the middle class suburbs that are adjacent to Camden and across the river in Philadelphia, the general response from people is, "Well, it's Camden." There is a blasé acceptance and expectation that an American city would be home to violence and trauma at record-breaking levels in 2012.

As long as that continues, Camden, and America at large, are no better than the Penn State football coaches who remained silent in the face of ongoing abuse in the Nittany Lions locker room. We know and can attest to the terrible violence being done here, yet the silence perpetuates and deepens its effects.

President Obama and Governor Romney were recently asked about a ban on assault weapons. They had shockingly similar replies about the importance of education and jobs. Yes, those things are important. Unfortunately, I know so many people here who are too overwhelmed by a lifetime of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that they are unable take advantage of those opportunities when they are offered. It is a devastating reality for those that live in poverty.

The Veterans Affairs Administration has developed systems and treatments for returning soldiers who have spent time in war zones and suffered PTSD as a result. This same approach must be applied for people in Camden and other areas of poverty and violence. It is the only way to begin to move forward and make real change. Applying a framework of "trauma informed care" meaningfully and thoroughly is essential for education and job training programs to be effective. Opportunities truly will not be opportunities without such a framework.

In Camden, we have been planting wooden crosses to remember each of the murder victims. While they are physical representations of the trauma, they do not tell the whole story. It extends to every person who visits them mourning for a lost one and every person who is touched by this unnecessary reality. The crosses break the silence and allow a process of healing to begin simply by acknowledging the pain that exists. It is a small first step that is intended to catalyze many more.

In a few weeks, or perhaps a few days, I will likely plant the cross of the 59th person to be murdered in Camden this year. It will officially mark the deadliest year on record here. This American city is dying not because we are helpless to respond, but rather, because we don't have the correct diagnosis. Providing more schools, more police, more housing or more development without treating the underlying trauma doesn't make sense. Breaking the silence on trauma doesn't only provide healing and opportunity, it provides us an economic return that we need today.