Monday marks the first anniversary of the killing of King Carter, a kid on his way to buy candy caught in the crossfire of a shootout in the parking lot of the Blue Lake Village apartments where he lived.
The tragic death of the 6-year-old spurred months of community marches and gatherings, emotional pleas for an end to the bloodshed and pledges from political and civic leaders to help stem gun violence that has killed or wounded hundreds of children and teens in Miami-Dade over the last decade.
One year later, all-too-similar headlines and statistics show the gunfire — particularly in some of Miami-Dade’s poorest pockets — remains largely unabated: 2017 has started much like 2016, and many years before that:
▪ A New Year’s Day driveby shooting in Little River wounded seven, four of them teenagers.
▪ Another spray of gunfire after a Martin Luther King Day celebration in Brownsville left eight hurt; two of them were young children, three others teens.
▪ Two weeks later, a 15-year-old alternative school student named Calixto Logan was murdered on a sidewalk near his Northwest Miami-Dade home.
▪ Another drive-by last week, one block from Carol City Middle School, clipped two 15-year-olds and a 14-year old walking home, all escaping with minor wounds. Two other scares occurred near schools that same day, luckily without injuries — two bullets struck a Little Haiti elementary and BB pellets shattered the windows of a van carrying 14 kids nears Brownsville Middle .
Last month, friends and family of Jada Page, an 8-year-old shot in a Northwest Miami-Dade front yard in August as she was getting ready to go to the movies with her father, continued what have become weekly walks pressing for justice — this time taking their appeal directly to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. They believe police and prosecutors have been too slow in making an arrest.
“Our kids are being killed daily,” said activist Tangela Sears, who lost a son to gun violence in 2015 and founded a growing group called Parents of Murdered Children. “The families investigate their own cases and learn who the killer is. The police investigate the case and when it’s presented to the state attorney, there’s never enough evidence.”
Police face challenges
Law enforcement, in some cases, have responded swiftly. After King's death, two teens were charged within days, police saying the gun battle outside the boy’s apartment complex was triggered by a beef on Facebook. Early this month, police also quickly charged a teen with gunning down Logan, another killing blamed on social media exchanges, this one involving a girl.
Still, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle acknowledged law enforcement has a ways to go, starting with winning more community cooperation.
“A lot of people say its because of fear of retaliation, and the anti-snitch culture,” Fernandez Rundle said. “I say it’s probably both. And there’s a third part: they don’t trust police.”
Last year, she dispatched a team of prosecutors, investigators, a victim counselor and a community liaison to be stationed alongside police at the Northside district station in Liberty City. The office has also worked getting more funds to help relocate witnesses who might be in danger. There has been incremental improvement. In the Northside district, prosecutors report the shooting clearance rate — which reflects solved crimes – has improved to 28 percent for 2016. The year before, the number was closer to 8 percent.
Still, most shootings remain unsolved, adding to the fear and frustration of relatives and residents. Most notably, police still haven’t charged anyone in Jada’s death — a case that underlines the challenges facing police. Detectives investigating her murder have been stymied by a lack of cooperation. According to law-enforcement sources, the young girl’s father, who was shot but survived and who police believe may have been the intended target, has not been in touch with detectives since his release from the hospital.
Aside from law enforcement, other high-profile anti-violence efforts also are only now ramping up. A coalition of local nonprofits and government groups, along with the Miami-Dade school district created Together for Children, back in September. Based on zip codes and academic performance, the task force has so far identified about 2,000 at-risk students.
Still in its infancy, the hope is that the data-driven approach to fight gun violence will help law enforcement and schools focus resources and programs where they are needed most. But the reality is that is that it will take more time to establish programs and, just as important, measure how and if they are helping.
$14 million pledged
Since September, the coalition has held close to 70 community events attended by more than 2,200 residents to get input about how best to help the at-risk youth, said Donovan Lee-Sin, a neighborhood and community services officer at The Children’s Trust, one of the coalition members. The Trust has also made $14 million available for programs for vulnerable youth, and Lee-Sin said some of the programs will get off the ground this summer.
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the pace of Together for Children's rollout is a deliberate effort to get as much community input as possible. "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," he said. "We've seen all too often band-aids being applied."
Carvalho has easily become the most vocal public leader on the issue, appearing at shooting scenes and constantly tweeting appeals to end the violence. He said he understands the frustrations of residents about previous stalled outreach programs but vowed that this one will stick.
"There's a quick knee jerk reaction to the incident, everybody is shocked, prays, marches, and then we retreat back to the safety of our zip codes," he said. "I understand because historically that's been a disappointment. But not with this effort."
While the deaths of young children like King and Jada galvanize the public, county and state records don’t reflect any significant new spike in youth gun violence. Instead, the numbers in Miami-Dade underline a persistent problem that has exacted a stubbornly steady toll over more than a decade.
Last year, 18 teens and children under the age of 18 were killed by violent gunfire, according to the most recent numbers available from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office. That’s only one above the average number of annual deaths in the last decade that saw the a high of 22 in 2006 and a low of 10 in 2009. Add 18- and 19-year-olds, and more than 370 youths have been killed by gun violence from 2005 through 2016.
That countywide number pales in comparison to the levels of street violence in many other individual cities such as Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, which all rank in the top 10 of large cities with high murder rates.
543 survivors in a decade
Deaths, however, only account for part of the impact. There are also scores of wounded kids, survivors of brushes with death that can have myriad long-term impacts on them, families and neighborhoods. Between 2005 and 2015, the most recent year that data was available, 543 teenagers and children survived crime-related shootings, according to hospital data compiled by the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County and the Miami-Dade County Injury Surveillance System.
Like those killed by gun violence, the majority of children injured by firearms in Miami-Dade between 2011 and 2015 are male, African-American and between the ages of 15 and 17. And much of the violence has been concentrated in only a handful of neighborhoods. Close to a third of the youth shootings during that period occurred in just two zip codes in Northwest Miami-Dade, state records show. These areas include parts of Brownsville, Gladeview, Liberty City and West Little River.
Some of those neighborhoods, like Brownsville — where there have been several shootings in the first weeks of the year alone — rank among the poorer parts of the county, with median incomes running well below the county average, according to US census data.
In some places, the echo of gunfire is more than a daily occurrence. One measure — a gunfire-sensing system called ShotSpotter employing by City of Miami police — showed startling numbers. A Herald review of the first 12 months of ShotSpotter data in the city’s poorest, violence-scarred neighborhoods — Liberty City, Little Haiti and Overtown — showed more than 8,280 individual gunshots were recorded and reported by the system’s dispatchers. That’s an average of 22 bullets a day in an area spanning about four square miles.
The continuing impact on families and kids already facing major economic challenges can be profound.
Studies show that children living in neighborhoods with frequent gun violence see their health suffer. Doctors say children are more prone to develop headaches and stomach pains and general anxiety. Longer term, it affects everything from internal organs to blood pressure to lifespan. Many will wear the emotional scars of gunfire for the rest of their lives. For others, there are daily reminders of pain from a wound, surgery and rehab.
“It affects everything,” said Judy Schaechter, chair of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Constant worry of gunfire
It’s a constant worry unknown to parents in the safe upscale suburbs of Coral Gables of South Miami. In Liberty City, for instance, some residents won’t even let kids out to play in the yard.
“There is definitely fear in the neighborhood,” said Jessica Footman, whose two children attend school near the park where eight people were hit by crossfire on MLK Day. “Children are less likely to go outside, play in the park, do normal things kids should do.”
Francesca Roacat, a Liberty City mother of two keeps her kids inside after school: “This is a dangerous community and a lot needs to be changed.”
The anxiety has even affected what has long been a historical safe haven — schools. Some kids are afraid to walk to class on their own. Parents, in some cases, are so worried they won’t let their children participate in after-school activities.
“They don’t know if they’re going to get shot,” said Anthony Quinnie, a father of two school kids at Charles Drew K-8 Center who he says now duck when they hear a loud noise or a firecracker.
In some neighborhoods, they’ve heard the promises of outside help before. Many residents remain skeptical it will come or last for long. And they argue that after-school programs and counseling only go so far, failing to address the more daunting problem of grinding poverty and shortage of opportunities for good jobs and wages.
Many parents who have lost kids see the best hope is to campaign themselves — pressing political leaders for support and their own communities to end the violence.
King’s dad Santonio Carter was only the latest to have the cause forced on him.
Little King Carter, a bubbly Van E. Blanton Elementary first-grader, had a couple of dollars in his pocket and was on the way to the store to buy candy when he was struck in the chest by a stray bullet during a gunfight between teens who had been fighting on Facebook.
Hundreds of mourners packed Opa-locka’s New Baptist Church at the Saturday service before the child’s burial. Large green ninja turtles, King’s favorite cartoon characters, and floral arrangements filled the church. Friends said King never did any harm to anyone. Law enforcement, elected leaders and church elders promised change.
But King’s father said he hasn’t seen it come.
“They just come out and put on a show and a suit,” King’s dad Santonio Carter said of many who show up after the death of a child. “They’ve got to stop just talking and walking.”
Carter and his wife Monica Smith have been visiting schools, offering tutorials and meeting with children at the parks and in foster homes in order to spread their peace initiative. On Monday, to mark King’s death, they will lead a walk from a gas station that has a painting of King to Charles Hadley Park, where balloons will be released.
“We’re just pushing our movement, to help kids,” said Carter. “It might not seem it to the outside world, but still the generation of kids 14 to 18 are causing pandemonium.”
For King’s parents, there has at least been some closure, the suspects in his killing behind bars and awaiting trial – unlike in so many cases, a key eyewitness came forward to testify for the prosecution.
‘Club’ no parents wants to join
But Dominique Brown, the mother of 8-year-old Jada, doesn’t have that yet. She struggles to erase the image of her daughter, lying mortally wounded on a porch.
“At first I thought it was firecrackers and then I saw her slumped over,” she said last week at a special meeting for Parents of Murdered Kids. "I didn't want to move her. I just screamed for help."
Instead of a ninth birthday party, she suddenly found herself planning a funeral. In the months since, she has felt “empty” like a “zombie.” Except for the anger that boils up every time she hears about another shooting, which plunges her back to the day her own daughter was shot.
Like Santonio Carter, she found herself a member of a “club” no one wants to join. She has turned to other mothers who have lost children to senseless gun violence for strength. “You feed off each other,” she said. “Sometimes it hurts to even breathe and they are there to remind you that you have to keep going.”
Brown said her pain is compounded by knowing that her daughter's killer is still out there in the street.
“People ride by and shoot and don't get caught,” she said. “There are no consequences.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer David Ovalle contributed to this story.