America’s culture of violence is a public health emergency. And, like all public health emergencies, we need to deal with the root of the problem – and not simply by responding to the horrific consequences left in its wake.

Ten years ago, Catholic Health Initiatives, one of this country’s largest nonprofit health systems, launched a national campaign called United Against Violence, focusing considerable resources and millions of dollars in grants on a crisis that is, in large part, preventable.

CHI has provided guidance and resources through our Mission and Ministry Fund grant program, with nearly $19.5 million going to violence prevention efforts nationwide since 2009. The funding supports initiatives that raise awareness on many fronts, from child abuse to youth dating violence and bullying to human trafficking.

CHI’s ground-breaking program – the only such initiative ever created by a national, nonprofit health system – has had wide-reaching impacts.

“Catholic Health Initiatives has truly been a leader in violence prevention and a great example how hospitals and health systems can make a difference,” said Rick Pollack, AHA president and CEO. “The organization has done outstanding work in reducing violence in dozens of communities, and is now working closely with the AHA on an even broader violence-prevention effort that we hope will include thousands of hospitals across the nation.”

For CHI’s United Against Violence, which has been rolled out in almost 50 markets in 18 states, the key to these efforts is community collaboration. There are truly inspiring organizations that have taken on these causes and have shared their stories so their neighbors also can avoid or escape violence. Among them:

  • The Initiative to Prevent Sex Trafficking in Watertown, S.D., where the community has learned how to recognize sex trafficking, especially at hotels and truck stops. The initiative sought to have 80 percent of residents and 95 percent of health care providers know the signs so they can report trafficking to authorities.
  • A community coalition against bullying and assaults among youths in Nebraska City, Neb., where local schools, law enforcement, the tourism office and others mobilize a community awareness effort that included billboards, yard signs, wrist bands, note cards and banners. The tag line: “Anger is Normal. Violence is Not.” Since its inception, arrests of physical aggression among youths have dropped dramatically.
  • A collaboration in Omaha between CHI Health, Creighton University and the Women’s Center for Advancement, which teamed up to reduce intimate partner violence and sexual assault among college students. Now, thousands of students have heard the program’s violence prevention messages, and many have been certified to teach “active-bystander skills” to help individuals safely intervene in potential acts of violence.
  • The Human Trafficking Task Force of Nelson County, Ky., which helped secure passage of comprehensive legislation on human trafficking that imposes greater penalties, provides multi-sector training in identification and response and ensures safe harbor for victims.

Across the country, United Against Violence and local communities are approaching these challenges head-on, sharing best practices and providing systemwide support. And although much progress has been made, there is still more work to be done in many areas, including human trafficking.

Indeed, the misconception is that human trafficking is mostly limited to Third World countries, not developed nations like the United States. The data prove otherwise. The Global Slavery Index estimated in 2016 that 57,700 people were living in modern slavery in the U.S.

The public also holds the widespread misunderstanding that human trafficking is an immigration-related issue. Here, too, the public is wrong. More than 80 percent of sex trafficking victims are U.S. citizens.

Extending its reach, CHI has collaborated with the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Human Trafficking Initiative and the AHA’s Hospitals Against Violence initiative in creating a diagnostic code for human trafficking to make it easier to record in all medical offices. Accepted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and set for publication in October, the new code will help medical professionals identify and document forced sexual and labor exploitation. This new classification also will help in deciding how to deploy staff and resources to assist victims.

All our communities hold the power to help end this suffering. At CHI, our work has been aimed at preventing at-risk individuals from becoming victims in the first place, partnering with local groups to eradicate specific types of violence.

The struggle against violence is a moral imperative we can’t ignore. The success of United Against Violence demonstrates that real progress in total community health can be achieved when health care providers are open to advocacy – and community collaboration -- outside the four walls of a hospital.

Click here to learn more about what you can do to help prevent human trafficking.

Colleen Scanlon is senior vice president and chief advocacy officer for Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives.