Think Out Loud

Multnomah County activates gun violence response team

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Aug. 17, 2022 7:39 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Aug. 18

Last year, Multnomah County announced that they would fund a new seven-person behavioral health gun violence response team. That team — which includes three mental health clinicians, a supervisor, and partnerships with community organizations that can provide mentorship — is now up and running. Yolanda Gonzalez oversees the division where this new team is based, and Karl Johnson works collaboratively with the counselors through his work as the Community Justice Manager for the County. Johnson and Gonzalez join us to talk about the county’s approach to gun violence.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start right now with Multnomah County’s efforts to reduce gun violence. Last year, the county announced it would fund a new seven-person team focused on behavioral health of young people as a way to interrupt or prevent gun violence. The team has three mental health clinicians and partnerships with community organizations that can provide mentorships. It is now up and running. Yolanda Gonzalez oversees the unit where this new team is based. Karl Johnson works collaboratively with the counselors through his work as a Community Justice Manager for the County. They both join us now to talk about their work. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Yolanda Gonzalez: Thank you for having us.

Karl Johnson: Thank you for having us.

Miller: Yolanda Gonzalez, first. So you work for the Behavioral Health Division of the county’s health department. What’s the connection between the kind of day in, day out, work that the health department does and preventing gun violence?

Gonzalez: The health department as a whole is looking at the wellness of our community and individuals and behavioral health is one of those aspects. And so we’re excited to be able to bring a focus of helping folks heal from the trauma of gun violence or community violence to the service area that we have within the health department.

Miller: How do you find the young people that you provide services for?

Gonzalez: That’s a great question and that’s actually where our partnership with Karl’s team and the community based organizations comes into hand. At risk or at hope youth are identified either from Karl’s team, from being on supervision or from these organizations as they see that their families have been connected or impacted by the violence in the community.

Miller: And so they’re referred to you. At that point, is it voluntary? I mean, it’s one thing to get a name on, on a piece of paper, but it’s another to, I guess, to get them to accept help, right?

Gonzalez: Yes, absolutely. Ideally it would be, all treatment is voluntary at some stages, but sometimes, with Karl’s teams, the court can mandate therapy and it doesn’t have to be with us. But oftentimes we’re a resource and we’re a culturally specific resource, with the focus of providing services to that population. So, oftentimes we see folks will engage with more cultural specific services with the focus of trauma, addressing trauma and as well as understanding what they’ve been through.

Miller: Karl Johnson, can you describe your piece of this, because you don’t come from the county’s health department. You’re closer to the part of county governance that supervises parole and probation, is justice involved. Can you describe what the RISE Program is?

Johnson: So we supervise youth that are on probation and the RISE team resources services and interventions to empower, and so we look for ways to build our relationship with our youth and families that are on supervision and then we try to find the best ways that we can, while supervising those youth, connecting them with services like Yolanda’s program so we can try to impact, form some form of impact. We also work with our community providers, community based organizations, Latino Network and POIC, to build relationships with families and we connect with mentorship programs like I Am Academy and the Pathfinders Program to continue to build relationships and work with our families and youth that are on supervision.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the variety of scenarios that would lead a young person to be under supervision, to get into your program in the first place?

Johnson: Youth that are found within the jurisdiction of the court and are placed on, for crimes that are committed throughout the community, have an opportunity to get involved with the Juvenile Court. The Juvenile Court has many levels of serving youth and families. We try to serve youth at the minimum levels, at the minimum as possible, so we can connect them with services, with families, but then youth that end up on probation will end up coming up to our program, based on charges that incur, that may incur when they’re in the community. Today’s specific topic is youth that have been placed on probation for gun possession and have been involved with gun violence and issues around gun violence are particularly, where we would like to put a focus on, because that those you are in a place where there’s a risk to the community and so working with the community, working with our community providers to help the youth assist the youth, grow the youth, and also connecting with the community and services.

Miller: Yolanda Gonzalez, how do you navigate this, the issue of on the one hand, I mean, there is the threat of more criminal prosecution. These are young people who have restrictions on what they can do by virtue of being under court ordered supervision. On the other hand, providing mental health services ideally, it’s not a coercive act and it’s not, as you noted earlier, this is voluntary, but there’s a kind of squishy combination of these two just by virtue of how you’re even finding these young people to help in the first place. I’m curious how you navigate that.

Gonzalez: I’ve actually done this work in the past and so I can, sometimes you’re met with resistance as a therapist and what’s beautiful about this program is that it does a sort of outreach and engagement and really builds relationships and the foundation is set on trust. And that’s, it takes a lot of time sometimes to like break down the barriers and stigma to mental health or the reasons that you’re there only, because it’s mandated, and so really getting buy-in from the youth. I think at the core of most people, they want to heal. And so when they feel there is a trusting person in a space that they can do that, they’ll engage in a more, in a way that’s really meaningful and positive for them and preventative, maybe even down the road for their, for their long overall life of their health, their overall health and well being.

Miller: Karl Johnson, one of the words that Yolanda Gonzalez said, there is trust and it takes time. I’m curious how you actively build trust, what that process is like.

Johnson: We build relationships with the youth and families and so we are working with youth in their homes and within our, in our programs, we can meet with them in the community, that’s part of our doctrine of working with youth. We call it functional families, probation, is we get in the house and we’re working with youth, we’re building relationships, so it’s not a place where, here’s a set of rules, you gotta follow these rules, if not this is what’s going to happen. We want to get in there, we’re building relationships, the youth and the parents and so we want to try to get to some of the root issues to help the youth become more productive citizens and connecting them with services. And connecting them with services, sometimes it’s that warm hand off, like we build that relationship with the kids and family and then we, we connect with the alliance program and we, it’s a warm handoff, it’s a relational meeting and it’s and sometimes, we all meet with all service providers collectively with the family to continue to build that trust in that relationship that we can develop and work with families.

Miller: You’ve mentioned families a couple of times and it seems like a really important piece here. What kinds of conversations do you have with parents or uncles or grandparents, with these young people’s caregivers?

Johnson: When we talk, sometimes especially when we’re talking about gun violence, is sometimes parents are always aware of the depth of gun violence and what sometimes the user’s involved with, and so we want to be there, be that conversation with them, to help them understand some of the complexities of the system, but they also can understand the complexity of what’s going on with their child. Sometimes children don’t always come in, don’t always come home and say this is what’s going on with me. They don’t do it when they’re in school. So now you’re on supervision and you’re out running around the community, creating some problems. We want to be able to build that relationship so we work together with the family because we’re talking young, we’re talking youth 12 to 18 and so we have to work with that family because that’s who knows the child intimately and we’re coming in, building that relationship, working with the family, so we can help the youth make better choices, but then also address the family needs. Are there some services that the family may need or they may, they made me a connection to build relationships so we can build that trust level and then the youth can engage in services.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about Multnomah County’s efforts to reduce and respond to gun violence. Yolanda Gonzalez works in the county’s Behavioral Health Division. Karl Johnson is a Community Justice Manager for the Juvenile Services Division of the County. Yolanda, we’ve heard for years about the shortage of mental health professionals in Oregon, but especially mental health professionals of color in Oregon. Has that affected your ability to actually staff this program?

Gonzalez: Yeah, it took some creativity, personal connections and outreach to, and a little longer than we would have liked to stand it up. I have a large unit of clinicians that serve the community, over 100 and throughout the pandemic, we saw a lot of turnover and so we weren’t only recruiting for this team. We’re recruiting for other teams as well. And we’re just, like you mentioned, it is more challenging because there are limited clinicians of color in the state and also there’s a lot of opportunity and so finding and finding the right folks who have a passion for walking alongside of children and family who have experienced this amount of trauma took time, but we’re there. So we’re excited to have them on our team and excited to have them out and serving the community.

Miller: What do you look for? I mean, obviously it seems like it’s a challenge to hire, but ideally, can you describe the kinds of people that you look for to do this difficult work?


Gonzalez: Yeah, there’s the credentialing piece of course, and then there’s the folks who have the passion and heart for serving and working with youth, families, folks who have the skills to hold that that level of trauma and the passion for serving their community, giving back to the community, ideally, folks who are from Portland or who are from the communities that we’re serving culturally. It’s kind of a perfect melding of all those things together when you’re looking for a clinician to walk alongside families that have been impacted by such violence and trauma.

Miller: One of the phrases that’s been used a lot to describe these programs is that they’re culturally specific, with a focus on, in particular, four demographic groups, members of African American, Latino, Asian and African refugee communities. I’m just curious, Karl Johnson, from your perspective, what it means in practice to tailor services to these different groups of people.

Johnson: So, to build connection with some families, sometimes, like I walked in some households as a juvenile court counselor and sometimes it eases that tension, that relatability, and it builds almost instant trust, when a face that that’s supposed to be a level in a place of power comes into your house and it looks like you.

Miller: Just, this is radio, so, just to make sure everybody is on the same page. So you are a black man and you’re saying if you walk into a black family and they see you as a representative of Multnomah County Courts, it’s different than if I did, a white man?

Johnson: In some ways it is, we both have to build relationships. However, sometimes with some families, it’s a little bit easier when I come into the room. So it’s not 100% but it’s 75. It could be 80%. It just, it just depends on the place where the families, we’re trying to meet the families where they are and where do you start to build trust. A lot of times it’s with people that you know, that are similar to you, that’s been in the same places and have gone down some of the, some of the roads that you’ve gone down and so we want to be able to build these services and to have a team of mental health therapists that relate to our clients is an absolute home run. It’s an absolute plus for our youth and families that are being served because the message of therapy needs to be able to be spread throughout the community and some, in our black and brown communities, we need to be able to say that therapy does work and therapy does give you options. And so having that relationship, have that relatability and ability to work with youth and families because we, I have some coworkers who don’t look like youth that do an excellent job and building relationships with family. So I’m not saying that you have to be African American to work with African American families. However, it does give you, with some families, does give you some space to be able to grow in that a little bit quicker.

Miller: Very practically speaking, often we’re talking about cycles of violence or retribution or, or a shooting, that that turns into more. With that as the background and if a young person either says to you or if you, you know what they’re thinking is that, I’m afraid for my life, I’m afraid that other people around me have guns. So I’m going to carry, too. How do you deal with that?

Johnson: It’s really, really hard. We really work with the family trying to find a place to get the youth safe. So with some of our community providers, we look at services, we looked at funding, we look at the possibility of, of youth moving to a different, a different place either within the county or out of the county and really want to look at finding ways to keep them safe.

Miller: That’s a striking thing to say that in some cases the only way or the, the best solution is literally to remove somebody from the area.

Johnson: It’s the truth. And we don’t know, so gun violence is not something that can be predicted or set up or something like it. It’s a random, almost a random occurrence. It’s also sometimes almost say, when you see somebody that, that’s been after you, you’re after them and, and you have a gun and they have a gun, sometimes that, that’s when it occurs and it’s very tragic and it’s very traumatizing for youth and the families, on both sides of the, both sides of the gun and then also along the trauma that our service providers and JCCs carried with this. So it does have a huge effect on all that are working with youth and families.

Miller: Yolanda Gonzalez, at this point when a young, black or brown man is killed by gun violence in Multnomah County, what’s the chance that people on your teams know the victim and/or the shooter?

Gonzalez: Yeah, it’s each like a pocket of community is small and really integrated and connected and it’s very likely and Karl and I were just talking about this the other day, that it’s very, very common for the folks in the community who are service providers to know folks in the community who have passed. It’s very likely it could be connected to them and that’s why they’re actually passionate about doing this work is because they’re coming from a family and they’re trying to give back to the community or they’ve been connected to these families because maybe they’ve been providing services for a long time in the community. So there’s various ways that our providers can be connected and it does, it has impact on them when a life is lost.

Miller: Do you have a specific protocol in your unit after a shooting, something that goes into effect, that always happens?

Gonzalez: It’s something, this is a newer program, but it’s definitely something that we have intentionally been building out in the program. Having, like I said, having done this work in the past and having been a provider who has lost children on my caseload, it’s definitely like something that’s at the forefront of our mind. So we have a space to process, on a weekly basis, because this work is not only traumatizing or hurtful or harmful for the providers when they lose somebody. It’s hard, a lot of the things they hold are the trauma stories. So we’re building space practically every week to process the difficulties of carrying these caseloads, to staff the cases and then an intentional space right after, if there is an event. And then partnering with other folks like Karl’s team and connecting with other service providers and coming together, because it’s a grief process. These families are connected to a lot of folks in the community, especially if they’re crossing over divisions even within the county. So it’s important to reach out and support one another in those moments.

Miller: Yolanda, the City of Portland’s Office of Violence Prevention has people who go to hospitals after shootings. The Portland Police Bureau’s Enhanced Community Safety Team does violence interruption type work as well. How much overlap is there between what’s happening at the county level and the city level right now?

Gonzalez: We also partner with them. They’re great partners and a lot of our referrals come from that team that does go to the hospital. Those are the youth, actually, our first handful of referrals to our program were for victims of gun violence from that program, from those folks in the hospital sending us referrals, recognizing that they have been impacted by the violence and that trauma was present, that they experienced trauma and that they’re ready to engage in a healing process. And we’re seeing that more and more than we did in the past, where youth and families are actually willing to engage in the therapy process, are open to a referral, are recognizing that this is actually having an impact on them, perhaps the way that they can’t sleep at night or that they can’t eat or that they’re finding themselves in a depressed state or hypervigilant or anxious and they’re recognizing like, oh, I might actually be able to get some services to help me get past this piece or phase in my life. And so engagement is up. And we’ve seen that throughout the pandemic, folks are really like talking about mental health, they’re aware that they have mental health, they’re aware that they have symptoms and are actually engaging in services and that’s across all of our programs. Folks are engaging in mental health services, which is, it’s lovely to see, actually. We want to help our community heal.

Miller: Karl Johnson, am I right that you’ve been doing versions of this work for 30 years now?

Johnson: 33 years.

Miller: What has kept you going?

Johnson: The motivation to continue to, if there’s a way to find services or connect the youth with the opportunity to make better choices. It’s almost, when you see a youth and you meet a youth, it’s, it’s a passion. The other thing I would also like to mention is, let’s not forget our police partners who are out there in that community serving, just like a therapist, just like our therapists are, just like our juvenile court counselors and our parole officers are, and they’re just as engaged as we are in trying to come up with solutions to impact on violence. So I want to make sure I mentioned our brothers out there who are in uniforms, who are, who’s doing some of the same work. I want to make sure that we know that it’s a collective of the community and we’re doing the best that we can to try to serve the community, because this gun violence has had a huge impact on all that we connect within our community.

Miller: Yolanda Gonzalez, what does success look like for your team?

Gonzalez: Ultimately, there’s so many ways to measure success with mental health and wellness. It could look very individualized, that someone, like I was saying earlier, is able to no longer be in a depressive state or to sleep or to not have post traumatic stress symptoms. There’s a lot of ways to measure success, but the ultimate goal is to engage folks in their own healing journey, so that this isn’t something that actually continues to, to perpetrate throughout their life and they can find a road to recovery. And I use that word in the sense of healing and then, connecting folks, like Karl was just mentioning, connecting youth and families to pro-social activities, increasing the social determinants of health that wrapped around them. And the ultimate goal is when all of those things happen, that there is a reduction in the gun violence, in the community violence and that people know how to access their health care, mental health care, they feel a strong connection to their community and providers, a lot of ways to measure success, but those are a couple of ways that we’re measuring it in our program.

Miller: Yolanda Gonzalez and Karl Johnson, thanks very much.

Johnson: Thank you very much.

Gonzalez: Thank you for having us.

Johnson: Thanks for having us.

Miller: Yolanda Gonzalez works in Multnomah County’s Behavioral Health Division. Karl Johnson is a Community Justice Manager for the Juvenile Services Division.

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