Two decades ago, a stray bullet cut short the life of 5-year-old Rickia Isaac as she walked home from a Martin Luther King Day parade hand-in-hand with her babysitter in Liberty City. A decade ago, an errant assault rifle round killed 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins on the front steps of her Liberty City home.
A year ago, a duel between teenagers killed Marlon Eason, gunfire hitting the 10-year-old as he retrieved a basketball in front of his Overtown home. And a month ago, 6-year-old King Carter, a kid who loved football and Ninja Turtles, got caught in crossfire while playing in front of his Northwest Miami-Dade apartment.
Every time, the deaths of children so young and so innocent generates outrage. People march and hold candlelight vigils. Elected leaders and church elders convene town hall gatherings. Editorials appeal for the violence to stop. Promises are made, many are not kept.
But the killing of kids on the streets of Miami-Dade County has remained sadly, stubbornly steady.
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“Nothing’s changed. Everything’s the same,” said Sherdavia’s mom, Sharone Jenkins. “Politicians come by and give their respect. When Sherdavia’s park was built they promised benches, tables for kids. Sherdavia would be 19 in a couple of weeks. I don’t see the change.”
Records from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office show that the latest string of child and teen shootings isn’t some new surge but instead the continuation of a chronic problem. In 2006, the year Sherdavia was killed, 34 children and teens lost their lives to gunfire in Miami-Dade County. Last year, the number was 33.
Over the past decade, 316 children and teens have been killed by guns — an average of over 30 a year. Some deaths were the result of domestic arguments. Other children were caught in the crossfire of gun battles between teens or gangs. In rarer instances, children playing with a gun accidentally pull the trigger.
The year 2014 was the high point with 37 deaths. The least deadly year was 2005, when 25 teens and children lost their lives to gunfire. Most of the victims — about two-thirds — are in their late teens, between the ages of 17 and 19. More than 75 percent of those who lost their lives over the decade were black, according to the medical examiner records.
Every few years, the tragic death of a young child forces the community to focus on the problem — a Rickia, then Sherdavia and now, King — but others happened with far less or little attention. In the past decade, 18 children under the age of 13 have been killed by guns in Miami-Dade.
The shooting of Sherdavia, who was struck during an exchange of gun bursts between two men as she played on her porch with a friend, generated a major civic campaign. A park not far from the crime scene now bears her name. But that same year Zykarlous Cadillon, 1, and Chaquon Watson, 7, also were lost to gunfire.
Two years later, Derrick Days, a 10-month-old, was shot dead at his home during a drug deal gone bad — another senseless and widely publicized tragedy. But Joshua Arolgia, 11, and Yezsenia Cabello, 4, also were killed by guns that year.
The records show that for the youngest victims, stray bullets aren’t the only threat.
In 2010, the deadliest year for children 12 and under over the past decade, Caroline Camelo, 10, Esteban Raigoso, 10, and Devin Franklin, 2, were all casualties of domestic disputes. A fourth gun victim, Jahnya Ware, 7, was an innocent bystander who died after a drive-by in Little Haiti.
Lourdes Guzman-DeJesus’s life ended in November of 2012 when a classmate shot and killed the 13-year-old on a school bus in Homestead. And in January 2015, a rifle fired three blocks from Landon Kinsey’s Miami Gardens home ended his life.
But street violence does seem to be driving the latest string that started with the death of 10-year-old Marlon Eason in March 2015. He had gone to pick up a basketball on a path in front of his Overtown home when a bullet fired by dueling teenagers from the street corner struck him in the head.
The shooting deaths of four Northwestern High School students soon followed, capped by the killing of King Carter on Feb. 21.
In the wake of King’s death, law enforcement and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez have outlined a plan to stop the killings. They promise more community policing and pledge that troubled youths will be identified once they enter the juvenile court system, then paired with mentors and police officers. Gimenez also said the police department would embrace technology and soon be able to map out the most likely hot spots for major crimes in town.
Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvahlo and other education leaders have weighed in as well, hiring more guidance counselors, keeping key schools open longer and other efforts. A partnership has been announced between six local colleges and universities to research local problems and provide mentors for troubled kids.
But many family members who have lost children say they’ve heard it all before and hold out little hope for change. The change, said some interviewed by the Miami Herald, has to start within families where young teenage boys are too often thrust into leadership roles.
“The politicians came around until June or July, then slowly stopped coming. It was mostly condolences,” said Marlon Eason’s uncle Richard Ruffin, a teacher at Jesse J. McCrary Elementary School. “It starts with the parents. Talk to your children. We need the village mentality again.”
The effects of losing a child to gunfire are devastating. Grief counselors at schools go into overdrive as kids struggle with their emotions. Family members, who often don’t receive the necessary social services, struggle to cope for years or even decades.
When Jonathon Spikes was a child in 1976, he found his older brother with a bullet in his leg in the living room of their Liberty City apartment. Nine years later, another brother lost his life to gunfire in the middle of the street.
“I drove over there and I remember seeing his eyes were open and flies were coming out of his mouth,” Spikes said.
Now Spikes runs a program in a Little River community center for kids in legal trouble or who are having difficulty dealing with violence. The nonprofit that is paid for through grants and donations is called Affirmative Youth.
“Life just goes on and you don’t really think about it. You just keep moving,” said Spikes, who points to a lack of resources as the root of violence. “It [shooting deaths] will continue to occur until we address what poverty really means. And the politicians will continue taking pictures.”
The first anniversary of Marlon Eason’s death is in less than two weeks. His grandmother Dorothy Ruffin, who mostly raised the child, sees him everywhere: In her mind, as other children play outside, in the dozens of pictures that sit on cabinets and line the walls of her home.
“I was with him. That was the hardest part of my life. I told my baby to run. We cannot lose no more kids. We can’t lose no more to those streets,” she said as she cradled a picture of Marlon in her arms.
Just a month ago, Dorothy Ruffin lost yet another grandchild — Famekeem Johnson, 18, was shot and killed while sitting inside a car not far from the Ruffin home in Overtown.
“When Marlon got killed my heart got broken,” she said. “When Famekeen was killed, I was still grieving for Marlon. It’s got to stop. It’s got to stop.”