CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE : What Happens to Kids Who Learn as Babies to Dodge Bullets and Step Over Corpses on the Way to School?
THE morning after a 19-year-old gang member was gunned down at a phone box at 103rd and Grape streets in Watts, his lifeless body lay in a pool of blood on the sidewalk as hundreds of children walked by, lunch boxes and school bags in hand, on their way to the 102nd Street Elementary School. A few months later, during recess, kindergartners at the school dropped to the ground as five shots were rapidly fired nearby, claiming another victim. On still another occasion, an outdoor school assembly was disrupted by the crackle of gunshots and wailing sirens as students watched a neighborhood man scuffle with police officers.
Terrifying occurrences such as these have brought together six youngsters, ages 6 through 11, who sit in a circle around a box of Kleenex in a colorful classroom. The children are a bit fidgety and shy at first, as a psychiatric social worker asks if anyone would like to “share” a recent event that made them sad. With hesitation, then with the words spilling out, each tells his story--pausing frequently to grab a tissue to wipe away the tears.
“They shoot somebody every day,” begins Lester Ford, who is 9 and lives with his mother and brother in the vast Jordan Downs housing project across from the school. When he’s playing outside and hears gunshots, the solemn child says softly, “I go in and get under the bed and come out after the shooting stops.”
He says he has lost seven relatives. “My daddy got knifed when he got out of jail,” Lester explains, and suddenly tears begin streaming down his face. “My uncle got shot in a fight--there was a bucket of his blood. And I had two aunties killed--one of them was pushed off the freeway and there were maggots on her.”
Sitting next to Lester, 11-year-old Trevor Dixon, whose mother and father died of natural causes, puts a comforting arm around his friend. “We don’t come outside a lot now,” he says of himself and his twin sister. “It’s like the violence is coming down a little closer.”
When it’s her turn, 8-year-old Danielle Glover peers through thick glasses and says matter-of-factly: “Just three people (in my family) died.” At night their ghosts haunt her, she says. “I been seein’ two of them.”
This is grief class at the 102nd Street Elementary School, and it is one of the front lines in the battle against violence in South-Central Los Angeles and other urban war zones. Experts and mental health professionals are just beginning to learn what happens to children like Lester, Trevor and Danielle as they grow into adulthood: Even if these children of violence survive the drugs, the gangs and the shootings, they might not survive the psychological effects of the constant barrage.
Though therapists are finding encouraging signs of resiliency, they believe that no child who is victimized, witnesses violent crime or simply grows up in its maelstrom escapes unscathed. Despite a fragmented and sometimes underfunded approach, these researchers are developing therapies to address the problem.
Two years ago, 102nd Street school principal Melba Coleman, the school guidance counselor and the psychologist had seen some children regress to bed-wetting, others become overly withdrawn or hostile and good students struggle to concentrate. They called on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s mental health center, and social worker Deborah Johnson, to develop a way to help the kids overcome their experiences.
So far, 30 children have participated in the weekly hourlong class, which is thought to be the first regular grief and loss program for elementary school students in the nation. They are encouraged to talk about life, death and ways to keep safe in an unsafe world. The hope is that, by sharing their thoughts and emotions with others, the children will come to terms with their feelings of loss, anger and confusion before long-term, irreversible problems develop. And it seems to be working.
Says Kentral Brim, 10, whose two older brothers were killed and who barely escaped injury himself during a gang fight that broke out at Martin Luther King Jr. / Drew Medical Center: “I was getting mad and fighting.” With the group’s help, the neatly dressed, polite young boy says, “I settled down.”
SETTLING DOWN IS hard in South-Central Los Angeles, in the shadow of the famous Watts Towers and within a few blocks of four squalid public housing projects. Sleepless nights are punctuated by gunshots, sirens and hovering police helicopters. Liquor stores are routinely robbed. Children as young as 6 are recruited as drug-runners. Some babies’ first words and gestures are the names and hand signs of their parents’ gangs. The very color of one’s T-shirt can determine whether you live or die, and the most important lesson of childhood is that survival depends on hitting the ground when the inevitable shooting starts. Some families are so fearful that whenever gang warfare flares up, they live behind closed curtains with the lights off, sleeping and eating on the floor to avoid stray bullets.
The scope of violence in South-Central Los Angeles is horrifying. In the first seven months of this year, there have been 237 homicides, 413 rapes, 5,864 robberies and 9,068 aggravated assaults in the most turbulent area of the city. Thirty-five of the homicide victims were under 18. A study headed last year by Dr. Gary Ordog at King/Drew Medical Center found that 34 children under 10 years old were treated there for gunshot wounds between 1980 and 1987. Records showed none in earlier years.
Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that 90% of children taken to the psychiatric clinic at the hospital have witnessed some act of violence, a recent survey found.
“How can children see all that (violence) and not be affected?” asks Gwen Bozart, a third-grade teacher at Compton Avenue Elementary School. Especially when such violence takes place against a landscape of deprivation and failure. Standardized school test scores in South-Central Los Angeles are far below the average for the rest of the city and state. The dropout rate in some high schools is nearly twice that of the rest of the district. More than half the adult population is unemployed. And mental health professionals say depression and suicide attempts are disproportionately high among a despairing population that is barely surviving.
“There’s just so much stress that an individual can take before he is completely overwhelmed,” notes UCLA child psychiatrist Gloria Johnson Powell, who grew up in the tough Roxbury section of Boston and this fall will establish a center at Harvard University to focus on the special needs of minority children. Often, Powell points out, inner-city children witness violence at home as well as at school and in the streets. They frequently endure abusive family relationships and watch endless hours of romanticized TV violence. “(Many of) these children have daily stress from the time they wake up until they go to bed,” she says.
Researchers have found that youngsters growing up in a war-zone environment such as South-Central Los Angeles are likely to become anxious or depressed. Youngsters who have been direct victims or who have witnessed, say, the brutal murder of a parent, are mostly likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, today’s term for a cluster of symptoms recognized in soldiers and others for many years but given labels such as “shellshock” or “combat neurosis.”
In children, post-traumatic stress disorder takes the form of reliving the violent experience repeatedly in play, nightmares and sudden memories that intrude during class or other activities. Kids with the disorder can be easily startled, apathetic, hopeless or possessed by a fear of death. Many children regress to early childhood behaviors such as clinginess, become extremely irritable and develop stomachaches and headaches that have no organic cause.
They play differently, too, going beyond the roughhousing that is part of normal child development. Such traumatized children tend to be more aggressive and more willing to take risks--wrestling to hurt companions, for example, or jumping from high places. Others can become inhibited, forsaking sports they used to enjoy, or they might re-enact a gruesome event in play. The popular childhood game of ring-around-the-rosy with its “ashes, ashes, all fall down” is thought to have originated as a response to the bubonic plague, when children watched people die and saw streets filled with corpses. Today, a psychiatrist tells of a child who, after having witnessed the stabbing of her mother, painted her hands red with her paintbrush.
Most devastating perhaps for school-age children, post-traumatic stress disorder reduces the ability to concentrate and remember, resulting in poor school performance. But it doesn’t stop there. Principal Coleman says the teachers at the 102nd Street school identified about 10% of the school’s more than 1,200 youngsters as showing “high risk” behaviors and notes that these children also interfere with the others’ ability to learn.
“High risk” behaviors, which include repeatedly cursing and hitting adults, are thought to be early signs that a child could become a social misfit.
Older children sometimes cope by affecting an indifference to the violence around them, experts say. They exhibit an emotional denial that can cripple all of their relationships. The seeming indifference is evident in random conversations with South-Central Los Angeles children over the last year. One group of children spoke dispassionately of finding a murdered woman’s mutilated body --”her eyeball was in her shoe”, a child said. Another group, when told about a fatal shooting, appeared less interested in the victim than in the details of his shiny new truck and its equipment. And, when asked for class field-trip ideas, an 11-year-old boy suggested “how about the cemetery?”
Other conversations reveal further emotional distancing: Several 8-year-olds discussing whether the murder of a lifeguard was justified because he had ordered someone to get out of the pool agreed that, as one child explained, “Yeah, he (the killer) shudda done it.” To them, killing seemed a reasonable response to a perceived insult. A 16-year-old girl at Jordan High School, ticking off the names of at least nine people who have been shot recently, put it this way: “The ones (bodies) I see in the street that are killed, that don’t mean nothin’ to me anymore.”
Such callous talk among young children alerts mental health professionals to underlying emotional difficulties. “You’re not going to be very trusting (as an adult) if you observe or have close to you violent behavior,” says Santa Monica therapist Ruth Bettelheim, a former consultant to Head Start and daughter of noted child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. “You tend to keep your distance psychologically--making close and intimate relationships difficult. And that isolation fuels depression, which is already there because of previous losses.”
But, Bettelheim says, some children are able to make up and overcome the lack of certain developmental processes if the adults and children around them can offer support. “It’s old psychology wisdom that the same fire that melts butter hardens steel,” she adds, so the very violence that spells destruction for one child might make a strong survivor out of another.
Psychiatrist William Arroyo, acting director of the Los Angeles County/USC child-adolescent psychiatric clinic, has studied refugee children from Central America and children from inner-city areas as well. He acknowledges that supportive parents, schools and neighborhoods can serve as buffers against stressful environments, then shakes his head sadly at the fact that South-Central Los Angeles offers so little: Many households are chaotic and headed by uneducated welfare mothers, nutrition and prenatal care are poor, mental health programs are scarce and Watts doesn’t even have a YMCA, where kids can participate in structured activities instead of hanging out and getting into trouble.
“The more they are exposed to violence, the more desensitized they become until it’s no longer horrifying but merely an occurrence in daily living,” Arroyo says. “We are very concerned about those who already have psychiatric disorders and those who have poor impulse control, who then witness violence either in real life or on television. If youngsters learn that the way of succeeding in everyday tasks includes maiming or killing community members, stealing and generally engaging in sorts of behavior that larger society calls criminal, we’ll see a larger population of these types.”
THE CALENDAR SAYS it happened more than five years ago. But Ana Anaya Gonzalez, now nearly 16, still pictures it clearly. Even when she tries to forget, her scarred body and recurring nightmares have been constant reminders.
It was a winter Friday afternoon in South-Central Los Angeles, just as children were being dismissed from the 49th Street Elementary School. A deranged neighborhood resident fired 57 times at the playground from his second-story window across the street, killing two people and injuring 13 others.
Ana, a fifth-grader at the time, remembers that she was playing on the monkey bars while her sister, Rosa, went back inside to get her sweater.
“I thought it sounded like gunfire, but a friend said, ‘No, it’s firecrackers.’ Then a bullet hit the ground near me, and everybody dropped. I fell on my knees. I couldn’t feel my legs, but I didn’t know I was hit.”
Inside the school, Rosa’s teacher pushed her to the floor and fell on top of her to protect her. A passing jogger spotted the sniper, shouted to him to stop and, seeing that Ana was moving, threw himself over her. He was hit by the next round of gunfire and died two months later.
“I was wearing a pink dress,” Ana says, “and when I saw it was full of blood, I tried to scream to a teacher in the doorway to help me. He looked at me and then turned around and closed the door.”
Ana spent five months in the hospital. She lost a kidney, still suffers leg pain, cannot bend backward and experiences stomach discomfort when she eats. A single bullet wound scars her back; surgical incisions mark her abdomen.
She also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Dr. Quinton C. James, the psychiatrist who treated her and several others injured in the sniper attack.
“Whether you’re talking about violence in Belfast, Beirut or South-Central Los Angeles, I think it all has an impact, although you never know how it will manifest itself in a particular child. Up to a point, one child may adapt with no (apparent) impairment, while for another it may impair (his) ability to function adequately, socially and academically,” says James, who recently retired as chief of child/adolescent services at the Augustus Hawkins Mental Health Center (a part of King/Drew Medical Center) and now works with the School Mental Health Center and the Centinela Child Guidance Clinic in Inglewood.
Immediately after the attack, mental health professionals from the school district, the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department, County-USC Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai’s Center for the Study of Psychological Trauma and various university and private consultants volunteered to help students, as well as parents and teachers. Over the next several weeks, using art therapy (see explanation on page 9) and in-depth discussions of the shooting, the experts helped those who had witnessed the attack deal with its shattering effects. Social workers continued to work with the children several days a week for the next year.
A month after the shooting, a team headed by Dr. Robert Pynoos, an associate professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, returned to see how the children were doing. Those most severely affected reported feeling stressed, upset and afraid just from thinking about the shooting, and fearful that it might happen again. They complained of jumpiness, nightmares, loss of interest in activities, difficulty paying attention in school and other disturbances. Those who had experienced other violence, an unexpected death or physical injury during the preceding year described having renewed thoughts and images of that event--even if they were not directly exposed to the playground shooting.
“You can cope with it,” James says he told Ana at the start of her psychotherapy. “There are things that happen in life, but you don’t have to be defeated by them. You’ll have physical scars, emotional scars, but you have to accept that it happened and that we don’t know why. . . . The thing is you’re still alive . . . and there is something you can do. We’ll find out together; I’ll help you, and so will your family and other relatives, people at school and other agencies.”
With her determination and the help of intense psychotherapy, Ana’s condition improved.After seeing James every day for the first month she was hospitalized and five days a week for the next four months, she was able to return to finish sixth grade at the 49th Street school, although she never again ventured onto the playground.
Ana continues to progress, but memories of the shooting plague her, James says. As recently as last February--on the anniversary of the incident--she told James: “I still feel the same way. I get scared about things . . . I get nervous and start crying for no reason. I remember everything about the past.”
Though she knows the sniper killed himself, Ana occasionally feels as if he is stalking her. She is sometimes afraid to be alone and sleeps in a bed with Rosa. Until recently, she has had a recurring nightmare: A man is chasing her and shoots her. “I wake up when he shoots me and can’t go back to sleep,” she says.
Formerly an excellent student, Ana has had trouble concentrating, has required a tutor and is working at about average academic level--although her grades are improving at Jefferson High School, where she is now a junior.
Other members of Ana’s family are desling with the shooting as well. Rosa, now 14, appears withdrawn and more traumatized than Ana, perhaps because she has received less therapy, James said. She was reluctant to return to the school, avoids discussing the attack and remains fearful and anxious.
Their mother, Esperanza “Blanca” Gonzalez, a waitress who has four other children, suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized briefly.
“I feel sick for Ana,” Gonzalez says. “She is very nervous and restless in the classroom. She has lost a lot of her spirit.” Gonzalez knows that her daughter “cries every night . . . and is sad much of the time,” but she says the family cannot afford psychotherapy. The Gonzalezes live in the same neighborhood, still frightened by the gunshots they hear in the night. “I still get scared,” Ana says. “When I hear the shots outside, sometimes I feel like they are shooting at me.”
Ana’s mother says she remains bitter about the the police department’s failure to respond to previous complaints about the sniper’s brandishing and firing guns. “Until we see blood, we can’t do anything about him,” she says officers told neighbors.
On the outside, Ana is a pretty, dark-haired teen-ager who appears bubbly, caught up in plans with her girlfriends for her upcoming Sweet 16 birthday party. She landed a summer job selling theater tickets and says she goes to dances, parties as much as possible.
She is talkative--but not about the shooting. “It’s not going to change anything to talk about it,” she says, then adds, “but I would like to go back to therapy because I like to draw the pictures about what happened. I get too nervous now, and I think talking with the doctor helps.”
James adds that Ana is one of the lucky ones, a child whose outlook is much brighter for having a “very supportive network.” Without caring family, friends and school personnel, she might have become another trauma victim unable to envision a future. But Ana has career hopes, “like maybe becoming a doctor. I liked how they worked when I was in the hospital.”
WHILE EDUCATORS and mental health professionals work closely with youngsters in the classroom, researchers continue studying--and in some cases, debating--how violence affects the young.
The first attempts to evaluate scientifically the phenomenon investigated children during wartime. Studies by Anna Freud and others after World War II suggested that children are minimally affected by war and sometimes find it exciting. This work has now been largely debunked. After studying the survivors of Belfast, Cambodia and Beirut, most experts contend instead that the effects of trauma can be masked, delayed or minimized--but never eliminated.
Some experts such as UCLA’s Pynoos have found that exposure to violence can cause physiological changes in a child’s developing brain stem, altering the brain’s chemistry and causing personality changes--such as impulsive behavior, an attraction to danger or a debilitating sense of fear.
But whatever the theory, almost all the experts speak with awe of the emotional strength children possess, even those youngsters from the bleakest backgrounds.
One of the few studies exploring the roots of resilience in young children followed nearly 700 Hawaiian children over a 30-year period, ending in 1985. The study, conducted by Emmy Werner, a child psychologist at the University of California, Davis, found that one out of every four children classified as “high risk” infants had developed into a competent, confident and caring young adult. Some seemed to have a natural strength, but for others, the scales tipped from vulnerability to resilience because the children found strong emotional support at home, school, work or church.
Raiford Woods, manager of the Jordan High Student Health Clinic, sees examples of resiliency every day in the heart of Los Angeles’ most violent neighborhood. With or without outside support, some of “these kids are marvelous and have the psychological strength to survive,” he says. “You compare a kid from Watts to one from Orange County or Westwood; he can handle twice as much pressure.”
Studies and observations like this form the basis for the widely held belief among experts that early intervention is essential--that anti-gang programs must begin in junior high, that grade-school children need support to get them off to a good start and make them less vulnerable, that “drug babies” and preschoolers need special care. And a growing number of programs seek to apply this premise in young lives.
“Some (older children) are lost causes,” psychiatrist James says. “We have to focus our attention on those coming along. I met with some youngsters who all told me they’d already been in jail. ‘Doc, you’re wasting your time with us,’ one said. ‘You work with our little brothers and sisters.’ ”
A few Los Angeles programs focus on prevention, others with helping youngsters cope after the damage has been done. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, offers a kindergarten intervention project in which children who are identified as having social problems, often stemming from exposure to violence, are assigned a volunteer “special friend” to act as a companion and confidant.
Preschoolers known to have been prenatally exposed to drugs are the focus of a new program at the Salvin Special Education Center, where early childhood specialists try to interrupt behaviors, often violent, that are forerunners of school failure.
At Jordan High School, alone in the district, all ninth-graders are required to take a violence prevention course. Among other things, the course stresses how to avoid fights, how to be manly without being macho and how to deal positively with anger.
UCLA’s Prevention Intervention Program in Trauma, Violence and Sudden Bereavement in Childhood responds to requests for assistance from cities across the United States where extreme acts of violence--such as sniper attacks, hostage-taking and shootings--have occurred. The Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton asked for assistance after the mass shooting in January. (While these incidents are obviously traumatic, experts say, they differ significantly from the chronic violence experienced in the inner city.) The program also trains mental health professionals, provides counseling and studies children who have witnessed violence in the home or community. Likewise, the Psychological Trauma Center affiliated with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center provides psychological assistance to schools where tragedy has struck.
Effective ways of coping with a reality that can’t be erased are not likely to lie with any single approach, the experts say. Nor can therapy ignore the web of problems that make dealing with violence even worse. Success lies in the cooperative efforts of the police, mental health and health services, schools, churches and concerned parents, and in solutions that address violence as well as drug abuse, poverty and single-parent homes.
Early-prevention programs are important, such as camp programs that give children an opportunity to see the world outside their everyday existence and television. Parents, especially mothers, need exposure to alternatives, with programs that give them a break from the draining responsibility of caring for several children around the clock, on limited resources and without male support. And ways to bring fathers into the system also need to be found.
For two years, the 102nd Street school program has focused mainly on grief and loss. Run by the school staff, the class is based on the theory that, with the support of their peers, troubled children can learn to deal with feelings they might otherwise suppress or act out at school or at home.
The program’s pilot group began with social worker Johnson reading a story about a young boy who flew kites with his uncle. The uncle dies--”and there was not a dry eye in the room,” Johnson remembers--but at the end, the boy goes out alone with his kite and remembers the good times they had shared. “That set the stage for the rest,” she says.
“Our focus is on recognizing and expressing feelings, getting them to come to grips with the fact that they’ve experienced a loss and leading toward an acceptance that loss is something we all experience,” says Johnson, who has spent most of the past 15 years working with disadvantaged children and their families and responding to violent crises at various schools. Activities in the grief class include using a “feeling board,” on which children draw or write whatever they want. Children play a game in which they make faces in a mirror to reflect different feelings, and they perform relaxation exercises such as deep breathing and stretching. They also listen to soft music while they visualize a place that makes them feel good. And they plant small gardens, which helps instill in them a sense of responsibility while symbolizing the beginning, growth and end of all life.
The program has not been scientifically evaluated. Some participants remain deeply troubled and have required referrals for outside counseling, and a few families have moved in hopes that memories will fade faster in a new setting. But teachers say the attitude, behavior and academic performance of most of the youngsters have improved markedly.
It is those little ones who are maturing and progressing amid daily bloodshed who give hope to Johnson and her colleagues.
“Even though all these horrible things are happening, there is a resilience there. These children and their families do respond to interventions. They have strengths even though life circumstances don’t allow them to live outside this war zone,” she says. “They’ve seen a lot, but for some some reason they’re still children, still trying to walk the tightrope between the craziness of the adult world and a carefree kind of kid world.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.