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Q&A: Working to heal young victims of violence

 Arvis Jones, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, has been a music therapist for more than two decades. But Jones, who works for the Center for Grief and Loss for Children at Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services and heads a children’s choir, has also been a first responder in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. She has previously worked with the Mayor’s Crisis Response Team, the Watts Gang Task force and wrote a grief and loss program for children in the Los Angeles Unified School District. For some top brass at the Los Angeles Police Department, she is one of the first people called in to help a grieving child who has witnessed a shooting or killing. Jones, whose son was killed in 2008, spoke with The Times about violence and grief.

What has working with the Watts Gang Task Force and what has the community taught you about the effect of violence on children?

Not living and growing up around violence, I took it for granted. I assumed that many of the children’s issues were due to poor parenting skills, lack of employment, lack of education, period.Then when I hooked up with the Watts Gang Task Force and really became a part of that community, I learned that all the things I mentioned before were problems, poor parenting skills etc., but I also began to realize that living in an environment impacted with so much violence creates trauma. It’s one thing to read about something, but when you hear sirens all the time, helicopters, lights shining down on streets, gunshots. I mean that creates violence in the community, but in and children and youth it’s even more so because they don’t know that it can be any different.

What symptoms of trauma do you see in younger children?

They don’t know why they are feeling the way they feel, but we see a lot of what we label as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. We see a lot of not being able to stay on task and focus in school. We see a lot of stress and anxiety in children. These children worry. I think that they don’t realize they’re worrying. They get in trouble in school, they get in trouble on the playground, they fight a lot out of anger and they don’t really know why they’re angry.

How did the 2008 death of your only son, Damon Jones, affect the work you do, or how you view your work?

It gave me a deeper sense of I’m on the right track in what I’m doing. I became a crazy workaholic. Anytime anybody called me, the mayor’s office, LAPD, a friend, anyone from the Watts Gang Task Force, I went to the crime scene. I don’t care where I was or what I was doing. When I had a chance to look back on it, every time I helped a family, every time I saw a child smile, I think in essence I was helping myself because I felt good and I felt honored and I felt that my son’s death gave me even another perspective on the violence in the community.

You told me that young black men are the least willing to get help — but that they are also the most at-risk for violent crime. Where does that come from and how can it be changed?

Our young men have a misplaced idea of what a real man is. A lot of them don’t have fathers in their lives or men in their lives, so in their effort to be strong black brothers, they initially think that it shows them to be weak if they shed a tear or say they need help. Mental health in the African American community in the past has been you only get mental health treatment if you’re crazy. Young black men still tend to feel that way unless they have certain kinds of parents who know better.

When you worked on the grief and loss programs for children in L.A. Unified, how did bringing in former gang members and police officers help?

I bring in the former gang members because the first thing kids will say is, “You don’t know how my life is.” And the men come in with their tats, so the kids can’t say you don’t know, you don’t know the streets. And they will go through: This is what my life was like; this is what I did; this is what I learned. And the kids can relate to what they’re saying to them.So you bring in people who now have a lot of sense.I pick the officers who are warm, love working with youth. I bring the ones in that I know can reach the kids.

Why don’t some children expect to live a long life?

Because of the trauma that they live in. Some of them get in a gang for protection. But then when they’re in a gang, they feel like I’m in this world, people are shooting each other, I could die any day. Why should I go try to better myself, why should I get an education, why should I go to school? I’m not going to need any of that, I’m either going to be dead or in jail by the time I’m 20 if I live that long.

How young would you say are some of the kids who have that mind-set?

At least 12.

Do you think that mind-set is found only in children who are gang-involved?

If it’s not someone who is heavily involved in a gang situation, then it’s a youth who has experienced death through family members. It’s because of some illness in their family that they think they might not live long. The kids that give up are involved in a traumatic lifestyle. Music is the saving grace; it works on the brain. We do instruments at the church during the summer, things to create self-esteem to teach them how to stay focused. As a music therapist, I do that a lot with the kids. I tell the parents to leave them alone — during rehearsal it’s up to me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more information about grief and loss counseling services call (323) 733-0322.

-- Nicole Santa Cruz

Photo: Arvis Jones, who is well known in south Los Angeles for being there when tragedy strikes, is photographed inside Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she coordinates a choir for children, Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

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