Brad Stolbach

Killing the Cycle of Violence: Psychologist Wins $2 Million Grant to Expand Trauma-Focused Care to Children Injured by Violence

Clinical psychologist Brad Stolbach first learned about childhood trauma at a summer camp in upstate New York after his first year of college. 

“These were mostly black and brown kids who had been abused, neglected, or came from neighborhoods where there was a lot of poverty; so, broken families and communities,” he says. 

After working at the same camp the following summer, quitting school, and continuing to work at residential treatment programs the next four years, Stolbach concluded that the children had far greater issues than what they were being treated for, so he decided to become a psychologist. “In the mid 80’s, people were just really starting to understand post-traumatic stress disorder as it applies to kids, but it didn't change the care in any way.”

Today, with his partners at the John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County, Stolbach focuses on pediatric patients injured by violence by providing intensive case management and access to trauma-focused counseling at Stroger’s Trauma Unit and the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. Thanks to a $2 million, five-year federal grant that Stolbach recently received from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, he and his team will be able to expand its services.

“This is one small step toward creating trauma-informed systems for our children and families,” says Stolbach. “We hope that we are able to make a difference for some of the families we take care of and that this will help us to build capacity to take care of more people.”

The grant will allow the hospital to offer screening and mental health care for Comer patients and their families through the University of Chicago Medicine Recovery and Empowerment After Community Trauma Program (REACT).

Creating and sustaining these programs has been extremely difficult because of the very limited resources available, Stolbach notes. “The need for this kind of care is at the highest it's been since I've been in Chicago so it certainly comes at a crucial time,” he says. “The fact that we know that we have this support for five years helps us to sustain the work we were already doing and enables us to devote more of our resources to taking care of people rather than chasing money.”

As of this August, Chicago had recorded 487 homicides and more than 2,800 people shot. August was also the most violent month in Chicago in nearly two decades, accentuating the need for programs like UCM REACT.

Under the program led by Stolbach, the hospital will screen emergency department and intensive care unit patients for trauma exposure. Patients and families will be offered support, counseling, and intervention. UCM REACT, which will be a community treatment and services center in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, will also create a weekly trauma-informed clinic co-directed by a psychiatrist and a psychologist that will cater to the psychological, psychiatric, social, and behavioral effects of being exposed to community violence.

“We are excited that the National Child Traumatic Stress Network once again has a funded center on the south side and that we will be collaborating more and with more of our colleagues around the country to ensure that our families get the best available care,” says Stolbach. “The biggest challenge is always that the number of people who could benefit from this care far exceeds our capacity.”

It is anticipated that UCM REACT will serve at least 1,250 children and families during the grant period, each year providing screening, support, and psychoeducation for at least 250 children, brief intervention for at least 50 children, psychiatric services for at least 40 children, and ongoing trauma-focused therapy services for at least 45 children.   

“The youth we work with are amazing,” said Stolbach. “To have survived all that they have and still be willing to engage in relationships with us is a testament to their courage and inherent humanity. We know that the work we do with them can make a real difference.”

Oftentimes, the youth he and his team work with have been labeled “bad kids, gang bangers, and criminals” by society. So it’s their job to try and help the system understand what the kids need and why things have happened in their lives.

“Our kids are dealing with unbelievable levels of stress and violence, and they're just trying to survive with very little help,” added Stolbach. “If we can support their recovery—not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically—then we can increase the likelihood that they're going to be safe and able to succeed in life.”

By Tanya R. Cochran