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As a reporter, one of the themes that has emerged for me over the last few years is how children cope with violence.

Peter Nickeas
Jul 22, 2016 · 5 min read

You can’t be around the city without being around violence, to some degree. When I am next to a shooting or murder scene and I have a chance, I pull adults with children aside and ask them to explain for us how they will explain what is before our eyes to their children, or grandchildren. How familiar their babies are with shootings, with the sound of gunfire and what follows.

We’ve talked about this with families dozens of times, after older relatives had been shot or after kids have been shot. And the truth is that children are exposed to gun violence in a way that few people in this city are willing or able to discuss at length, for many reasons. But, the conversation needs to be had.

There was a kid shot a couple afternoons ago in West Englewood and her uncle and grandfather were recounting how she, with a wound to her abdomen and organs exposed, calmly told her older relatives that she had been shot.

My friends seized on this after the story was out and said, in what world does a 6-year-old know what a gunshot is? I took it for granted though, I didn’t think twice about it, and maybe that means I’ve been doing that too long, but kids in this city know what gunfire is. I should have asked the family to expand on that, but it didn’t strike me as odd that the child knew what shooting was.

A few months ago, we talked with the family of a 13-year-old boy who was killed in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. His name was Leo Betancourt. The boy had a 6-year-old nephew and he was confused. When another uncle of his had been shot twice, he lived. So the six-year-old was still able to see him. But this time, his mother tried explaining, he couldn’t see his younger 13-year-old uncle. It wasn’t that the 6-year-old didn’t know about shootings, it’s that he didn’t know death, and each morning he woke up asking his mother again “when will we see Leo,” and each morning she said he couldn’t.

What’s most dangerous about the worldview that assumes only people who get shot are affected by shootings is that it ignores the children in the world. We assume the world is for adults, and it is, but we can’t pretend that children aren’t sponges soaking up the sights and sounds of violence around them. Try as we may to keep them from it, it’s too pervasive of a problem for the city to ignore and say, “well, as long as it’s not on my block.”

What’s more, it’s not a long walk from child survivor of trauma to child offender, and even less of a walk from there to adult offender. Anyone who works with children will tell you this. It’s important that they have love in their life, and that these issues can be addressed and given context at an early age.

Most often a reporter’s best work is just giving voice to people who otherwise would not have been heard from. Best to let someone talk, and for us to get out of the way. The difficult part is convincing people it’s OK to talk, or that the city would be better off somehow having heard from them.

I have a couple statements here from relatives of a gunshot victim. This shooting happened almost five years ago, about the time I was interviewing for my job at the Tribune, and the man these two statements reference was just now on Monday sentenced to 90 years in prison for the act.

The girl killed, she was 17 and pregnant. Her son was born in emergency surgery and lives on a ventilator and other machines. She was shot by a man who, after missing his target, shot her eight times as she begged for her life and screamed that she was pregnant.

I wrote a short article about the man being sentenced, and these statements were read into the record on the day of his sentencing. The victim’s name is Charinez Jefferson. The first statement is an excerpt by the girl’s mother, Debbie Jefferson.

I want to leave you with these words, not mine, because they speak to the issue of gun violence in a way that I could never. They speak to the lives left behind by victims of violence, the trauma left in their absence.

These remarks are addressed to the man who killed her daughter.

“Thank God first of all, who’s the head of my life, who placed it in on the jury’s heart to come up with a favorable decision and is showing justice for my daughter’s death and the injuries that my grandson endured through this ordeal. As a result of your actions, he now has to live on life support, not able to speak, walk or play.

Maybe with one more shot, you would have taken his life too. It’s kind of sad when his brother asks, “Grandma when is he going to get out of bed and play with me?” You not only took my daughter’s life, you basically took his life too. I pray every day that God shows him favor and that one day he will be able to enjoy some parts of life.”

Debbie Jefferson, the woman who made those remarks, died after her daughter’s killer was convicted but before sentencing. This was read into the record by one of the prosecuting attorneys. Before her death, she cared for the boy born in emergency surgery.

The second statement was read in court by the victim’s aunt, Betty Lee. Her take is a little different, but important, because it shows how people grieve differently. There’s no right response to trauma like this, I think. These are her words:

I refuse to even ask why … for there is no reason whatsoever for you to do to her what you did, to shoot her down as she begged for her and her baby’s life. Yes, Timothy, her baby, which we weren’t able to mention during your trial. She was carrying a perfectly healthy baby boy and because of your actions, that all ended. You took her life, you left her baby clinging to life and to this day he is attached to a ventilator that breathes for him. You left her other son wondering, ‘When is she coming home?’ I know this because day after day, every time the bell would ring or someone knocked on the door, he would run to the door saying ‘ma ma’ and when the door opened you would see the sadness in his face, because it wasn’t his mother.

I’m sure my inability to forgive you will affect me in some type of way, but I’ll deal with it. I can barely close my eyes some nights without seeing my niece’s body on that morgue table, bullet wounds from toe to head and for that I don’t think I will ever be able to forgive you. I hope that night of August 16, 2011, haunts you in the midnight hour as it has done me night after night, although I doubt it will.

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