CANTON, Ohio — Their photos peer out from our television screens and Facebook timelines.
Rowin Sweeney, a four-year-old shot and killed in Struthers, near Youngstown.
King Pleasant, a six-year-old from Canton who was shot and killed by an 11-year-old.
Ja’Voun Tell, a ten-year-old shot last Tuesday as he took out the trash at his home in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
Not only are there many examples of recent violence affecting children, but also violence from a few months ago that, for the families of victims, remains an open wound.
Earlier this year, Na’Kia Crawford, an 18-year-old and recent high school graduate, was shot and killed in Akron while waiting at a stoplight in her vehicle. Her father told News 5 he hasn’t gotten any answers, and his family continues to wait for justice to be served.
Governor Mike DeWine highlighted many of these recent cases of gun violence involving children on Tuesday, as he pushed for the General Assembly to pass the STRONG Ohio bill, which seeks to toughen penalties for convicted felons who aren’t supposed to have weapons in the first place and give judges more discretion when it comes to sentencing repeat violent offenders.
“We have an obligation as leaders of this state to take action to protect people,” DeWine said. “This is an easy one. This is not hard. We need to get it done.”
Dr. Edward M. Barksdale, Jr., is the surgeon-in-chief at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital and the Robert Izant Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at Rainbow and the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.
“These are innocent bystanders. They aren't the perps,” Barksdale said of the children who are victims of gun violence. “They are children who are putting the garbage out and get caught in the crossfire.”
He added, “For me, gun violence, youth gun violence, is the other pandemic.”
Barksdale said he’s seeing more children dying from bullets and violence than from COVID-19.
“We have a tendency to not only turn our channel away from violence but also to turn our hearts away from what's occurring in a population that we may or may not relate to,” Barksdale said. “So our first step is to try to bridge or narrow the empathy gap.”
Beyond that, Barksdale is working to help children who come through Rainbow as victims of gun violence.
“I’m a surgeon, so I'm used to fixing babies who are born with congenital anomalies or tumors,” Barksdale said. “But I also see myself as a healer, and you heal in community.”
These children are part of the Antifragility Initiative, formed by Barksdale and a medical student two years ago and which has received more than $1 million in funding, Barksdale said.
It seeks to support children after a traumatic event, connecting them with services in the community.
“We meet kids in the emergency room and we go to their homes. We go to their schools,” Barksdale said. “We try to look at those things in the environment, not that we can fix, but those things in the environment that we can help be better.”
He said he hopes Northeast Ohio sees gun violence for the epidemic it is.
“We have to stop normalizing violence for the future of this community in Northeast Ohio, if not for the future of the country,” Barksdale said.
Professor Daniel Flannery of Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School is the director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education. He said there has been an uptick in “firearm violence generally, and homicides from gun violence in particular.”
“Over the last several months, it certainly seems like we've seen an increase in children who are involved in these incidents and sometimes victims of accidental or random shootings or not the intended target,” Flannery said.
He noted that people are under a great deal of stress right now.
“At a big-picture level, there are increasing rates of domestic violence and increasing rates of substance use and addiction, stress from the economy and other things,” Flannery said. “When you put all these things together and social isolation, et cetera, and then you bring firearms into the mix, that's a bad combination. And I think we're seeing the result of that right now.”
Flannery emphasized that exposure to violence as either a victim or witness can have effects on mental and behavioral health, contributing to stress, anxiety, and depression, among other issues. And, he said, it can have long-term effects.
“This kind of violence affects all of us, even if it's not in our backyard or within our families. When these things occur in our communities over time, this affects every aspect of the fabric of our neighborhoods and our communities,” Flannery said. “This isn't someone else's problem. This isn't only an issue when it affects us personally. This affects us as a community, and so we all have a role to play here. It's not just a law enforcement approach that's going to solve this problem.”
Flannery said there are programs in the community that respond to trauma after it’s happened, but that on the front end, when it comes to violence prevention, awareness and education are key.
“One of the biggest problems is access to firearms,” Flannery said. “The sheer number of firearms and the lethality of those firearms available to young people in our communities is, it's hard to wrap your head around how easy it is to get a gun.”
One program in the community that is working to help children who have experienced or witnessed trauma is the Children Who Witness Violence (CWWV) program. Rosemary Creeden, associate director of trauma services at FrontLine Service, is working on that program, which has been around for more than 20 years.
She described the program as an emergency response to children exposed to violence in their homes and in their communities. The program receives referrals from Cleveland police and three other local police departments, as well as the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. Typically, there are about 50 referrals to CWWV per month.
While 85% of the cases referred to them are for domestic violence, Creeden said they have seen a recent increase in cases of children directly affected by violence.
“I think that we have had so much violence in this city in the last several months, that there's a tremendous amount of anxiety among the children that we serve,” Creeden said.
Violence experienced by a child, Creeden said, can change that child’s worldview.
“If you're a 10-year-old taking out the garbage cause your mom asked you to take it out and you get shot, then what you internalize is that my house isn’t safe. People aren't able to keep me safe who love me and my neighborhood isn't safe,” Creeden said.
For parents who are struggling to reassure their children in the wake of violence, Creeden urged them to call the hotline at (216) 623-6888 to make a referral for their child if they are concerned about changes in the child’s behavior. She also emphasized the need to keep children on a steady routine after periods of violence.
“Allowing them to talk about the incident is very important, and that is a hard thing for parents to do,” Creeden said. “But it is very helpful for children to be able to talk about and it is a way of working it out with themselves.”
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