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Turning Around Gang Members In The 'Golden Moment'

A program at one Portland hospital is reporting success by bringing gang members together with counsellors at just the right moment — that is, immediately after they’ve been shot.

Counselors call it the “golden moment” and after six months, the Healing Hurt People program says so far it’s working.

Joshua Lathan

Joshua Lathan

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Joshua Lathan is a counselor with Healing Hurt People.

“More often than not. I’ll see it on the news and then my phone will ring. Breaking News and they’re brrrrr at the same time. ‘Josh?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yup, I’m looking at the TV now and I’m getting dressed,’” he said.

Lathan drives to the hospital immediately because he says there’s a golden moment, just after someone’s been injured, and it lasts about four hours.

“That’s a moment in time when they may be more apt to listen to you,” he said.

“A fresh wound, they’re scared. They may be thinking to themselves, ‘Man, this may be my perfect time to get out.’ And they see someone come into the room and offer them a doorway to leaving. They may be more apt to be, ‘Yes, I’m with it. ‘”

And it’s not just the young man who’s open to change at the hospital.

Lathan’s co-counselor, Cheryl Johnson, says it’s a good time to catch the family as well.

“If Josh and I happen to go out on a call together, it’s usually him that’s interacting with the young person, and it’s me relating to the mom,” she said. “And just really checking in and getting the story.  Right, finding out who has the influence in the family? What happened? Are they interested in retaliating, are they upset? Just really getting a good idea of what the mood is.”

Legacy Emanuel Medical Center has allowed the Healing Hurt People program to come to the hospital for the last six months.

The program is new to Portland, but similar efforts are now running in 22 gang affected cities. Its webpage says its aimed exclusively at males of color between the ages of 10 and 25. And once a young man has made the decision to leave, Lathan works with the family, the school and anyone in his life, to keep him on the straight and narrow.

“We all stay in communication with each other as well and just form like a small village around the young man,” he said.

Healing Hurt People will help the family move, if the victim doesn’t feel safe in his neighborhood. The program will also help him set up a safety plan: who is he going to avoid when he gets out of hospital? What’s he going to do during the day? Is he going to get a job?

“It may take a little prodding for some,” he said. “But for the most part, they’re staying out of trouble, ‘If I’ve got to get out of trouble, that’s what I’ll do.’”

But, giving counselors access to someone who’s just been in surgery can be a worrisome proposition for a hospital.

Lori Morgan is the CEO of Legacy Emanuel, and a trauma surgeon.  She says Legacy went to great lengths to make sure counselors don’t badger patients when they’re frightened and at their most vulnerable.

“They essentially had to hit all the targets that we would require of our employees in terms of background checks, and HIPAA violation training,” Morgan said.

HIPAA is a federal law that covers health care and privacy. Morgan says the hospital basically treats the counselors like contractors.

“So they do carry contractor badges, so they’re always identified,” Morgan explained.

“I think the most important thing for me as we were developing the program was to make sure that there wouldn’t be interference with medical care.”

But Morgan says, after six months, she’s been impressed.

“They often interact with the families which is a little bit more difficult  for medical personal to do,” she said.

“I mean  we had one instance where one of our physicians called Josh while the patient was an inpatient and having some difficulty and saying, ‘Hey, can you come over here and talk to this guy.’ That wasn’t planned — that was spontaneous.”

Morgan says the hospital agreed to take part to reduce the loss of human capital from gangs, but also to save money. Gunshot victims are expensive to care for and most are not insured.

Healing Hurt People has worked with about a dozen Oregon gang members so far.   At a presentation for Gov. John Kitzhaber staff told him none of them have been re-arrested or re-injured.

The governor expressed his support saying gang violence isn’t only a criminal justice issue — it’s also intricately linked to education and unemployment.

“If we were able to do a full-cost accounting of these young people,” Kitzhaber said, “your program downstream saves untold millions of dollars not to mention human potential.”

The program costs about $200,000 a year, with two thirds of the funding coming from donations and one third from fees.

Supporters are hoping the state will pick up part of the cost in the future.

The question is: does the Healing Hurt People program reduce gang violence?

Theodore Corbin, an Emergency Room Doctor at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia has been working with the program for six years. He says  more research is needed on that question.

“It’s very challenging to say that we’re having an impact on decreasing violence because you really don’t see anything like that until 10 years out,” said Corbin.

He’s working to get the program into every level-one trauma center in Philadelphia, so it becomes clear whether the men who’ve been through the program are really staying out of trouble, or just going to another hospital when they’re re-injured.

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