YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — How do we perform under stress?

Karen Guerrieri, of the Mahoning County Juvenile Court, says it’s chemistry and physiology that determine what a human being does under stress.

But for someone who is a child and is consistently exposed to the kind of stress that comes from violence, using those instincts often at a young age can lead to issues later on in life.

There are lots of statistics and studies that bear that out, but it’s not just the experts who say that.

Take a look at just about any sentencing memorandum for a person about to be sentenced for a violent crime or selling drugs. Almost every defendant was exposed to violence at a young age, either in their neighborhood or through their family history. They end up engaging in the same kind of behavior and go to prison for long stretches of time.

How does that kind of trauma affect a whole neighborhood? As part of our series exploring why the South Side has been the most violent part of Youngstown for at least the last 30 years, WKBN has talked to experts in the field of childhood trauma to find out how exposure to violence can shape a person’s behavior and what can be done to counteract it.

First, WKBN looked at the population statistics, if there were some accurate ones, and unfortunately, there are not.

The 2020 U.S. Census data for Youngstown does not include a breakdown of the population by age for each census tract. That will not be available until May 2023 and may not be available at all because the city’s population has dropped below 65,000, the benchmark for providing such statistics.

The census does say that Youngstown has 15,052 people 19 and under, which is just over 23 percent of the city’s total population.

To find a rough estimate of how many school-aged children there are on the South Side, WKBN checked the enrollment figures for the two neighborhood schools on the South Side, Taft Elementary and The Rayen Early College at Williamson School. According to those figures, Taft has 337 students from pre-K to fifth grade and 310 students at Williamson in grades five through eight.

Several studies, including one by the Violence Prevention Coalition, say that continued exposure to violence as a young person can lead to poor grades; lower aspirations for the future; difficulty in forming trusting relationships; an inability to tell the difference between a threat and something that is safe; and an inhibited development of confidence and a secure sense of self.

Exposure to violence at a young age can also lead to improper development of areas of the brain that help people make decisions and control their impulses and can lead to stress, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the study.

And that can lead to problems when they have children themselves. According to the study, that can lead to them passing on PTSD to their children, and often, those children are more likely to become victims of violence themselves.

So far in 2022, 10 people 18 and under have been shot, including one homicide. Six of those people and the homicide took place on the South Side.

In 2021, five people 18 and under were murdered in Youngstown. Three of them were killed on the South Side.

Guerrieri, the clinical supervisor of Clinical Services at the juvenile court, said because kids aren’t fully developed, using those instincts at a young age can lead to the problems described above that will linger on into adulthood if not addressed.

“It impacts individuals through their entire life span, and they can pass it on to their children,” she said.

Joe Shorokey, who heads up ALTA Behavioral Healthcare, said exposure to violence can also force young people to self-isolate, which hurts them because they are not around their peers or other people.

“That interferes with normal child and adolescent development because we are social beings,” Shorokey said.

Valerie Burney, of the Mahoning County Board of Mental Health and Recovery, said the loss of an older loved one to violence can also lead a younger person down the wrong path toward violence. She said exposure to violence at a young age can also cause bullying or cause that person to make themselves a target of violence.

Guerrieri said all children who are placed in the Juvenile Justice Center are screened beforehand and asked a series of questions to determine if they have been exposed to violence. If they have been, there is a range of counseling and educational programs for them to try and help them.

Shorokey said ALTA has several programs for teens who have been exposed to violence, especially in 2020 and 2021, as the number of shootings and homicides in Youngstown skyrocketed from 58 in 2019 to 98 in 2020 and 139 in 2021.

“We felt it was something we needed to address as a mental health provider,” Shorokey said.

Shorokey said one of the highlights of their programs is that kids meet other kids who have been exposed to gun violence or any kind of violence.

“They have to understand they are not alone and there are people like them,” Shorokey said.

Burney also said that having kids meet their peers who have experienced the same kinds of trauma is good for them because it lets them know there are others who have the same feelings they do. She also said a good way to combat that trauma is with positive activities, especially after school, and positive relationships.

Decreasing stressors, she said, can help the kids personally and their neighborhoods as well when they go back home.

“They see the positive outcomes of being involved,” she said.

To see how childhood trauma can affect a person, a look at a sentencing memorandum for someone who faces a judge for a gun or drug offense is often telling. In the memorandums, defense attorneys often chronicle their clients’ backgrounds, including their childhood, to offer an explanation for their behavior.

Dewon Dawson, Jr., now 38, grew up in a poor Youngstown neighborhood “rife with crime and violence,” according to the memorandum written by his attorney in November of 2021, when he was facing a sentence in federal court for being a part of a drug ring.

Dawson’s father left the family at a very young age, and he dropped out of school when he was in eighth grade, according to the memorandum. He began smoking marijuana and drinking, and at the age of 18, began taking cocaine, which quickly developed into a daily crack cocaine habit until he was arrested in April of 2019, according to court documents.

In 2008, he beat a murder rap for a shooting death on West Myrtle Avenue after a witness recanted their testimony, leading prosecutors to drop the charges against Dawson and two others.

When a search warrant was served in March of 2018 at an Idlewood Avenue home as part of the investigation, one of the defendants had over $153,000 cash and four guns, a trial brief said.

The brief said Dawson had a .40-caliber handgun, a .38-caliber revolver, a .32-caliber revolver and an AK-47 pistol; over 54 grams of cocaine; and $6,800 cash. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, a sentence agreed upon by his attorney and federal prosecutors.

More recently, Willie Daniel Jr., who was being sentenced on a federal gun charge in September, also had his childhood history recounted to a judge.

At just 26, Daniel has been affected by gunfire more than some people in combat zones. The memorandum recounted several incidents, including:

In 1999, his father was shot and left paralyzed.

In 2010, he was in a vehicle that was shot at multiple times but was not hit.

In 2011, two of his cousins were wounded in a drive-by shooting at an aunt’s house.

In 2012, another cousin was killed during an argument, and an uncle was murdered.

In 2013, while on bond in a 2012 robbery case, he was shot and wounded after someone fired several shots at a car he was riding in.

These are the more remarkable because Daniel spent several years in prison because of the 2012 robbery. He was arrested by Youngstown police in July 2021 with a gun. He received a five-year sentence on Sept. 23 in federal court for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Youngstown police Capt. Rod Foley, who served for a time as chief and also served two stints as chief of detectives, said one of the reasons why he formed the Community Initiative To Reduce Violence (CIRV) was to try and make an impact on young people who were already in trouble or were on the cusp of being there.

CIRV is a program that offers services — such as counseling, educational help, employment or other services to people who are believed to be at risk of either engaging in gun violence or being a victim of gun violence.

Foley said one of the things that he has seen during his over 30 years in the department is how young people, especially those exposed to either random violence or crime through older family members, often fall into a life of crime themselves.

“A lot of times, you could foresee it coming,” he said.