Illinois State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, knows pain and trauma. Her son DJ was murdered in 2014.
DJ was at a birthday party at a friend’s house when he got into an argument with another man who shot him in the chest. Gordon-Booth was nine months pregnant at the time of the killing. A week after burying DJ, she gave birth to a daughter.
“You bring a child into the world, it’s such a beautiful experience. But you just had this dark cloud over you,” Gordon-Booth said “And so at times that was the only bright light that we had was our brand new baby girl.”
Gordon-Booth was wracked with grief, and she felt isolated. Then at the trial of her son’s killer she saw the pain of the young witnesses who saw DJ killed in front of them at the party.
They were suffering with pain and agony and didn’t have the help they needed. The experience left Gordon-Booth convinced that something needed to be done for the hundreds of thousands of trauma victims in Illinois.
In 2017, Gordon-Booth helped get public funding for two trauma recovery centers in the state. Now those efforts are expanding, with three new recovery centers opening this winter. Experts say the sort of help being offered at these centers is a critical tool to help reduce violent crime and provide real justice for victims.
‘A holistic approach to treatment’
About a year ago, Victoria Smoter started treating a man who had been shot multiple times and he was scared to take public transportation.
Smoter who is the lead clinical psychologist at the trauma recovery center in south suburban Evergreen Park said this patient would have panic attacks while waiting for the bus, worried that someone would see him and he would be a target of violence again.
So in therapy sessions they talked about those fears, acknowledged that they came from a real place. But also worked out some techniques to deal with and overcome them so he could get a small piece of his life back.
She said after a few months, the man was taking multiple buses to get to the gym.
It may seem like a small thing, Smoter said, but being able to take the bus restored his independence.
“He was so excited about it, it changed his whole demeanor … his body language, his affect, his face,” Smoter said
At the trauma recovery centers survivors of violent crime are wrapped in services, from therapy to case management to financial assistance. The centers help with paying for food or rent when the trauma has put people in a hole. All at no cost to the patients.
“We have those really basic physiological needs like food, shelter, safety, and we’re not getting beyond that if those things aren’t met,” Smoter said. “So [we] try to take a holistic approach to treatment and help people get those basic needs met so that we can help with the psychological piece as well.”
The first two trauma recovery centers were in Evergreen Park and Gordon-Booth’s hometown of Peoria. The three new locations are in Rockford, Springfield and north suburban Gurnee. The recovery centers are run by local hospital groups, and each is getting about $1 million a year in taxpayer money.
The trauma recovery centers in Illinois are based on a model that started in California. Data there shows that crime victims who get services through trauma recovery centers are more likely to return to work, more likely to feel better emotionally and more likely to cooperate with law enforcement than crime victims who receive “usual care.”
Gordon-Booth said the investment in trauma care is “worth its weight in gold.”
Lenore Anderson, the president of the national advocacy group Alliance for Safety and Justice, said the trauma recovery centers help stop the cycle of violence by giving survivors better coping mechanisms, improving their lives and helping them up out of despair. And she said it also makes it more likely that victims will cooperate with police.
“Oftentimes, the survivor of the incident has no trust in the system and is not trying to cooperate with the investigation,” Anderson said. “What we’ve seen so many times is increased trust levels in justice, increased cooperation with investigations. And that’s another way that this model is really about improving public safety.”
‘I’m stronger now’
Tina Rucker watched as her nephew, Marshawn Tolliver — a boy she helped raise since he was a baby — was gunned down in 2019.
The shooting happened right in front of their house in Peoria. Rucker saw it from her front porch. She breaks down remembering her nephew, and how hopeless she felt after his death.
Rucker said the trauma recovery center helped her when she didn’t know what to do. They gave her a support system, a therapist, a group of people who were always there for her and knew what she was going through.
Rucker said after her nephew’s murder she was scared all the time — she couldn’t stay in her house because the murder happened right out in front of it. She had nightmares.
The center helped her move and paid her rent until she was able to get back to work.
She’s completed the program now, and is no longer officially a patient, but she said the staff at the recovery center still reach out to her.
“They’re family to me, they’re my second home. If I didn’t have them, I don’t know what I would have done,” Rucker said.
The trial for her nephew’s alleged killer is scheduled to start Monday. Rucker said she’s been subpoenaed to testify, something she didn’t think she’d be able to do.
“I didn’t know if I could stand to even look at this guy,” she said.
But she said the people at the recovery center promised to go with her as support. Now, she’s planning to take the stand, more evidence of how far she’s come.
“I’m ready. And I’m stronger now.”