Op-Ed

The survivors of youth violence are hurting, too

Tawana Akins, far right, organized a rally that drew hundreds of supporters in February 2016 in honor of King Carter, the 6-year-old boy killed during a drive-by shooting outside his apartment in Northwest Miami-Dade.
Tawana Akins, far right, organized a rally that drew hundreds of supporters in February 2016 in honor of King Carter, the 6-year-old boy killed during a drive-by shooting outside his apartment in Northwest Miami-Dade. Miami Herald staff

Local media have chronicled the scourge and relentlessness of gun-related violence among youth in Miami-Dade County. Rarely does a week pass without at least one child or adolescent being struck by a bullet. As a school psychologist and chair of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Crisis Management Program, I have responded to more than 150 youth homicides during the past 24 years. Most of their names and faces have long since faded from my memory; however, the emotional impact of these losses on others remains vividly clear.

To fully embrace the extent of victimization that follows violent loss, we must look beyond each child who has been murdered or wounded and recognize the countless families, friends, classmates, teachers, and witnesses, many of whom have suffered psychological injuries of their own.

Although these deaths occur almost exclusively on the streets of our community, children bring their grief to school: “You don’t know what it is like to live here. It’s all messed up.” “This is the fifth friend of mine who has been murdered in the past two years. I just don’t feel anymore.” “I am so tired of attending funerals. I don’t have any tears left to cry.” These student testimonials bear witness to the cumulative impact of grief experiences and associated trauma and serve as powerful reminders of the fragility of life in their world.

The late child psychologist Haim Ginnot said: “Children are like wet cement, what falls upon them leaves an impression.” Exposure to extreme violence yields such an impression and may significantly impact a child’s development by altering the structure of the maturing brain. Trauma’s reach has the potential to influence cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and neurobiological development and functioning and may result in deleterious life-long outcomes.

Traumatic experiences may also take a toll on a child’s learning potential, delaying the development of language and other communication skills, and affecting the ability to retain and recall information; skills which are strongly aligned with academic success. Further, as a result of depression, incident-related anxiety, intrusive, disturbing thoughts about the event, overstimulation, and fears regarding personal safety, a child may experience great difficulty concentrating and attending to academic tasks.

Widespread is the belief that youth from communities besieged by gun violence are somehow desensitized to the realities connected to these events. I reject this conclusion, believing that those who are trauma-affected are even more sensitized to the impact of violence and loss. Although there may be an outer appearance of apathy and resignation, beneath the surface is raging anger, depression, fear, and anxiety. Without intervention, this internal war of emotions has the potential to adversely impact a youth’s ability to become a healthy and functional adult.

That said, the destiny of trauma-affected youth is not fixed. Although those exposed to adverse events will in some way be changed by their experience, they are not necessarily permanently damaged by them. Further, the emotional scars that children bear tell us a great deal about where they’ve been, but they don’t have to dictate where they are going. Working collaboratively, we can redirect the life course of a hurting child in a positive and enduring way.

Ultimately, bringing an end to youth gun violence will only be accomplished through a concerted and sustainable effort that emphasizes prevention, early identification of at-risk youth, available and affordable intervention, family support, case management, and the backing of a community that refuses to lose one more child to a bullet.

Together for Children is an example of such an approach. It is a local coalition consisting of government, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, The Children’s Trust, local universities, business, law enforcement, justice, community-based support and funding entities. These organizations have made a commitment to align, leverage, enhance resources, and coordinate care efforts, toward the common goal of addressing the root causes of youth violence. This comprehensive effort is an important first step on the pathway to preventing future tragedies. May this journey, blessed by hope and faith, lead to a place where no first-grade child feels compelled to ask the question: “Am I going to die too?”

Frank J. Zenere is chair of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Crisis Management Program.

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