Pediatricians Called to Action in Addressing Children's Trauma From Police Brutality

Tara Haelle

October 26, 2020

Pediatricians and other health care professionals who care for children are uniquely situated and qualified to educate the rest of the nation on how police brutality and overpolicing traumatizes children and teens and why those issues must be addressed, said Cornell William Brooks, JD, MDiv, a professor of public leadership and social justice at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.

Brooks, also former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), delivered an impassioned call to action during a plenary session at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held virtually this year.

"In this moment, you enjoy an extraordinary measure of trust," Brooks said. "As a consequence, I would argue that history and circumstance call upon to you to speak to this moment with a voice that is distinctive as a measure of expertise and unique as a measure of trust and credibility."

The flood of comments throughout his live talk testified to how inspirational the AAP attendees found his words.

"We, as pediatricians, have a very powerful voice together," wrote AAP President-elect Lee Savio Beers, MD.

"As pediatric staff we need to have our voices heard beyond the walls of our clinics, in our schools, in our legislative bodies and communities as a whole!" wrote Michelle Bucknor, MD, MBA, chief medical officer of United Healthcare of North Carolina.

Brooks opened his talk with images of Tamir Rice, Emmett Till, and George Floyd, explaining how images of Emmett Till's dead body galvanized a movement in the same way that Rice, Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police brutality are doing today.

"Emmett Till was killed by white racists in 1955 in Mississippi on the eve of the Montgomery boycott, and his death and his tragic image in death animated and inspired the Civil Rights movement," Brooks said. Now "the country is divided along the fissures of class and the fault lines of race in a moment of generationally unprecedented policing. These images, tragic as they are, represent the countenance, the face of police brutality in this moment. "

How Police Brutality Affects Children

Since the death of George Floyd, at least 27 million Americans have participated in protests and demonstrations throughout at least 550 jurisdictions in the United States and throughout the world, Brooks said. But the harm of police brutality extends beyond police homicide victims.

"The harm is a matter of overpoliced patients and untreated children," he said. Children are watching and listening as the nation grapples with police brutality and overpolicing, and the experience is traumatizing them in ways that shows up in school performance and health.

He shared findings from multiple different studies showing that exposure to police violence in the community is associated with declines in grade point averages, lower test scores, and poorer attendance. Risk of emotional disturbance is 15% greater in children exposed to police violence, and youth who have had contact with the police have reported worse health than those who hadn't. Some of these effects increased with age, and they disproportionately fell almost entirely on Black and Hispanic students.

"Because of this trauma, school attendance and college enrollment declines," Brooks said. "Police brutality has an impact on your patients, and beyond the patients who are right in front of you, there is a sea of millions of untreated, unattended children, and this trauma is reflected in the tremor of their voices, the trepidation, the apprehension, the fear that can be discerned in their spirits."

Brooks shared several quotes from two qualitative studies that attempted to capture the experience of youths living in overpoliced communities and whose daily routines are criminalized. One respondent in this research said, "Sometimes I think to myself that I probably look suspicious, but I, like, shouldn't think like that ‘cause I'm a human being." Another said when he sees the police come around when there are groups of boys out, "I have my phone ready to record. I'm just waiting for something to happen."

The Voice of Pediatricians

The voices of pediatric providers have a key role in the national discussion about this issue, Brooks said, because medical professionals have so much of America's truth. One Pew Research Center survey found that 74% of Americans had a mostly positive view of medical doctors, compared with only 35% with a positive view of elected officials and 47% of the news media.

"As health care professionals dedicated to pediatrics, you are uniquely qualified, circumstantially and historically called in this moment to respond to this tragedy and trauma of police brutality as visited upon our children because you have been entrusted with America's trust and credibility," Brooks said.

He described several ways pediatricians can use storytelling to shift how the country perceives the issue of police brutality and the impact on children. Pediatricians can emphasize the humanity of children who are victimized, particularly when a different narrative competes for the public's attention.

"Some children we deem to be sufficiently perfect that we can have sympathy and empathy for them," Brooks said. "Other children are deemed to be so imperfect that we cannot have sympathy and empathy for them." Within days of Michael Brown's death by police in Ferguson, Mo., for example, a "post mortem character assassination" deemed Brown "too imperfect for empathy," Brooks said.

"Brooks hit the nail on the head," attendee Jeanette Callahan, MD, a pediatrician with Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts, wrote during the session. "We must tell the stories that we hear every day from our patients."

Pediatricians also can bring science and research into the public conversation to help people better understand children, just as the amicus briefs of pediatricians and neuroscientists in U.S. Supreme Court cases led the court to declare the death penalty and life sentences without parole as unconstitutional for minors.

"You as pediatricians, as physicians, as nurses, as health care professionals have the ability to cast doubt on things that people believe to be true and give them conviction with respect to things we know to be true as a consequence of data and our moral understanding," Brooks said. He encouraged pediatricians to "engage in storytelling and justice-seeking by expanding and diversifying the resources we bring to public policy," including science, data, and expertise.

Two recent examples of this professional activism include Massachusetts pediatrician Fiona Danaher's testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives regarding current immigration policies' impact on children and the work of Michigan pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha's in exposing the Flint water crisis. Brooks shared a quote from Danaher: "For me, treating children humanely is a question of basic morality. I knew I couldn't sit on the sidelines."

Neither can pediatricians sit on the sidelines now with the issue of police brutality, Brooks said.

"You as pediatricians can call on America to engage in a Hippocratic approach to policing, that is to say, do no harm," he said. "It's not enough for us to content ourselves with children not becoming hashtags, not becoming police homicides. We have to also consider the trauma of overpolicing and oversurveilling our communities of color."

He also recommended pediatricians remind the country that addressing social determinants of health also addresses social determinants of crime, providing an opportunity to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

In the comments, attendees shared other ways pediatricians can influence policy in favor of children.

"Pediatricians can reach out to police departments, prosecutors, and public defender offices, the local judiciary, and local attorney associations, etc., to describe and explain the effects of policing on children and adolescents," wrote Trina Anglin, MD, PhD, who retired in August 2019 as chief of the Adolescent Health Branch in the Health Resources and Services Administration's Maternal and Child Health Bureau. "We can bring the voices of young people to others. At the community level, each professional group meets on a regular basis; each group also talks to the other groups."

Others echoed these suggestions. "Expand your voice outside your office," wrote Jimmell Felder, MD, of Pediatric Associates Greenwood in South Carolina. "Attend city council meetings and discuss the stories of our patients with the people who make the policies. It is part of our job to advocate for our patients."

Joanna Betancourt, MD, a pediatrician with Salud Pediatrics in Algonquin, Ill., encouraged fellow attendees to "vote locally and nationally for people that are open to change legislation that supports the well-being of all children."

Given all the trauma of 2020, Patricia Deffer-Valley, MD, of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, said pediatricians cannot have "moral paralysis."

Brooks had no relevant financial disclosures. Disclosure information was unavailable for others quoted in this article.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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