An Epidemic of Community Violence

Project HEAL (“Help, Empower, and Lead”), a hospital-based violence intervention program working in coordination with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center, opened its doors this month with the mission to address community, domestic, and gang-related violence in Monmouth County.

Project HEAL (“Help, Empower, and Lead”), a hospital-based violence intervention program working in coordination with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center, opened its doors this month with the mission to address community, domestic, and gang-related violence in Monmouth County.   

“Creating a very specific type of care for those affected by violence – from the moment they enter our emergency department to long after the point of discharge – is critical,” says Aakash Shah, M.D., medical director for Project HEAL. “It is needed now more than ever, and I applaud Governor Phil Murphy, Attorney General Gurbir Singh Grewal, and the leadership of Jersey Shore University Medical Center for helping us with this program.”

According to data from the Uniform Crime Report, three areas of concern in terms of violent crime are Asbury Park, Neptune Township, and Long Branch City. Combined, these areas saw 12 murders and 744 aggravated assaults in the past three years.

Between January 2016 and August 2019, Jersey Shore University Medical Center’s internal medical data shows that they treated 408 violent injuries in a variety of different capacities: 107 by fist, 176 by knife, 84 by gun, and 41 by other means. 

Community violence and victimization is rarely a one-time event. Yet, victims often find themselves returning to the very same circumstances that contributed to their injury without resources to prevent future violence.

Case in point: despite the psychological trauma of violent injury, many victims of violence struggle to access mental health services. Barriers to services include stigma, distrust, and difficulty navigating the system.

“This cuttin’, stabbin’, & shootin’ between these young men, ages 15-30, that’s where the action is going on,” said Keisha Harbour, a community activist and lifelong resident of Asbury Park.  “I want this program to help with that, to give these people other options in life.” 

Harbour recently joined Project HEAL as a violence intervention specialist and is often the first point of contact for a victim of violence treated in the emergency department. 

Her experience has taught her: “We need to bring balance to our community; we have no balance and no options. We have nothing to help scale these issues back.” She notes that the community needs programs like Project HEAL in place and to empower patients with resources and opportunities.

National studies have found in urban settings, it is estimated that up to 41 percent of patients treated for violent injury are re-injured within five years. One survey of victims of violence at five-year follow-up found that 20 percent of patients treated for violent injury had died.

Project HEAL will take a multi-pronged approach in trying to help break the cycle of repeat violent injury and victimization in Monmouth County. Its model is multidisciplinary and combines efforts of medical staff with trusted community-based partners to provide safety planning, wraparound services, and trauma-informed care to violently injured people.

“Caring for our community, whether it’s within our medical center walls or through our outreach efforts, is at the core of everything we do,” said Vito Buccellato, MPA, LNHA, chief hospital executive, Jersey Shore University Medical Center. 

New Jersey hopes to serve as a national model of rethinking how to treat violence from a clinical standpoint, as well as a criminal justice standpoint. The program, part of a $20 million federal grant, is the largest such investment in the United States to address recurring instances of community violence.

“As the founder and former Executive Director of Be Jersey Strong, Dr. Shah is uniquely suited to lead Project HEAL,” said Kenneth N. Sable, M.D., MBA, FACEP, regional president, Southern Market, Hackensack Meridian Health.  “I know he will be successful in guiding this program and providing our community with essential resources to help stem the tide of violence.”

For more information about the program, call 732-897-8190 or visit www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/project-heal/