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In churches and on front porches, counselors work to intervene before a homicide

Volunteer counselors Dr. Marva Robinson, left, and Adrian Wrice discuss a case during drop-in hours in the basement of the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Volunteer counselors Dr. Marva Robinson, left, and Adrian Wrice discuss a case during drop-in hours in the basement of the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church.

In the basement of the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, clinical psychologist Marva Robinson meets with people who know of a conflict that may escalate to violence. She trains her ear to signs of previous trauma or emotional instability. The next day, she starts making calls.

“We start the next day, with trying to make contact with individuals to see how we can have a conversation about the conflict in ways that we can resolve it,” Robinson said.

Robinson is one of several counselors volunteering their time for a new program to prevent violent conflicts in St. Louis. The nonprofit Better Family Life has established a hotline for residents to report potential conflicts, and volunteer counselors hold drop-in hours on Tuesday nights in four area churches. Organizers say it’s a necessary alternative to calling 9-1-1.

“There’s a divide between the community and law enforcement right now,” said Adrian Wrice, an outreach worker for Better Family Life.  “These aren’t matters where you would really run to the police.”

There were 188 homicides reported by the city of St. Louis in 2015, and less than a third of the cases were closed by the end of the year.  All but nine victims were killed with a gun.

James Clark, vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life, said the idea to create de-escalation centers came up after a campaign to distribute yard signs that say, “We Must Stop Killing Each Other.”  

“An unexpected result was people started calling to inform us of conflicts that they felt would escalate to gun violence. So we started de-escalating conflicts,” Clark said. “This is a service that is needed in our community.”

Since early December, counselors have conducted 13 de-escalation sessions, Clark said. Though the program began without funding, the organization is hoping to attract donors as it rolls out. Counselors do not share information from the conversations with law enforcement, outside of their duties as a mandatory reporter for suspicions of child or elder abuse.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Police Chief Sam Dotson expressed support for the program.

“Any drawback will be offset by the good they’re doing to the community,” Dotson said. “It’s about getting individuals the help they need, whether its substance abuse, drugs issues, anger management, whatever.”

Robinson said she knows she has prevented violence in at least one case so far, and that the men involved later returned to Better Family Life for help with a job search.  

“Seeing now that there are three young children who will have their fathers present. That there’s two more young black men that won’t end up being a statistic. Seeing that there’s a mom that’s willing to reach out for support and ask for help,” Robinson said. “For me ...  it doesn’t get any better than that.”

To reach Better Family Life’s de-escalation hotline, call 314-203-3900.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB