Drs. Donnelly and Goyal

Inspired to make a change

Drs. Donnelly and Goyal

Drs. Donnelly and Goyal lead our efforts to support survivors of violence with a focus on prevention.

Children’s National Hospital created the Youth Violence Intervention Program in 2022 to build connections with patients and prevent future violence through follow-up support for them and their families.

The team works under the leadership of Katie Donnelly, M.D., M.P.H., the program’s medical director who is an emergency medicine physician. They care for children who are survivors of community violence, including gunshot wounds, stabbings or assaults. The program has cared for about 250 youth to date.

Dr. Donnelly and Monika Goyal, M.D., MSCE, associate division chief of Emergency Medicine and Trauma Services, lead our efforts to support survivors of violence with a focus on prevention. Dr. Goyal leads the Safer through Advocacy, Firearm Education and Research (SAFER) group. It works on a local and national level to reduce firearm injuries and deaths among children.

We spoke Drs. Donnelly and Goyal about their goals and the impact of this work.

The interview is edited for brevity.

What inspired you to launch the youth violence intervention program and SAFER?

Dr. Donnelly: Injury is a part of life, and it is something I can never fully protect any child from. But for me, the toughest cases are those caused by violence, particularly gun violence. We are seeing more kids come in with their second or third injury. Violence is a chronic disease that runs much deeper than a single injury. I wanted to do more to break the cycle and address its root causes, such as disconnection from school, unaddressed emotional trauma and poverty. I researched other hospital-based violence intervention programs and learned about the D.C. Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants. We established the program with funding from that entity.

Dr. Goyal: As we started to hear more about gun violence impacting youth, I felt like I needed to do something. Every time I care for a child in our trauma bay who suffered a gunshot wound, it just takes a piece of me. I co-founded SAFER in 2016 to make our communities safer for children so they can live healthy and fulfilling lives. It began with four physicians and has grown into a multidisciplinary team of more than 40 Children’s National experts who volunteer their time in addition to their regular duties.

What keeps you going when challenges feel insurmountable?

Dr. Donnelly: I try to focus on the kids’ successes. Last year we had several teens in the program enroll in D.C.’s Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program. They were so proud to show off the debit cards they received to process their earnings. I also think about the kids that our team has helped get back into school who are doing well. These successes are things you can’t always measure with graphs or reports. But I hold them close to my heart, and they are all inspiring.

Dr. Goyal: Gun violence has a ripple effect. Even if a child has not personally experienced gun violence, it may still touch their lives. They may have family members, neighbors or friends who are victims. Their neighborhoods may have experienced gun violence, so it impacts a child’s ability to feel safe. It is devastating. Our work through SAFER keeps me going. We are doing this by sharing evidence-based interventions, advocating for policies that protect kids, and educating families about safe firearm storage and use, among other efforts.

What do these efforts mean to you?

Dr. Donnelly: The work we do gets us a seat at the table to impact larger change, and that is gratifying. Children’s National has become the expert on pediatric firearm injuries in the D.C. region, and we work with local governments on gun violence prevention legislation. I also appreciate opportunities to share our knowledge with the community. I recently spoke at a Teach for America conference about how young teachers can talk about gun violence and safety in their classrooms.

Dr. Goyal: There have been so many feelings of helplessness, and we know we can’t make a difference in every child’s or family’s life. But we are committed to tackling this crisis and trying to prevent tragedies from happening again. It is humbling to be part of this work.

How can philanthropy support these programs?

Dr. Donnelly: External support is essential to sustaining the Youth Violence Intervention Program. We are thankful for the government funding to keep this work going, but D.C. has faced budget cuts, so it’s not always guaranteed. Also, most of the critical psychosocial support we provide is not reimbursed by insurance. This includes things like food and housing resources and transportation costs for kids to get to school or medical appointments safely. Philanthropic support would ensure that we can continue this work and expand the program. We need more Violence Intervention specialists and a trauma-focused mental healthcare provider so our patients don’t have to wait for services. There is much more we can do to ensure that families have what they need to thrive.

Dr. Goyal: I agree, there are so many opportunities for growth. We were grateful to receive a generous gift from the Honorable Ann Brown (former commissioner of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to support some of our prevention efforts. These include expanding screenings in the E.D., developing trainings to help youth de-escalate conflict and advancing research to increase awareness of gun safety. Additional support would allow us to scale and grow our programs so we can make an even bigger impact.

Read more stories like this one in the latest issue of Believe magazine.