By Dr. Cynthia Greer, Associate Professor of Counseling/Education
On hot summer days every child should be able to have the experience of going swimming, getting an ice cream cone, and playing outside with friends and family. One hot summer day ten year old Makiyah Wilson who had just finished swimming and walked with money in hand to buy that ice cream cone was murdered. On Monday, July 16th four masked men with guns drove up to the Clay Terrace apartments and sprayed the courtyard with bullets, killing Makiyah and wounding her sister and three other people. We know what happened to Makiyah and we know that her family, friends, teachers, and her community will be changed by this traumatic event. However, there have been six teens between the ages of 14-17 that have also been killed by gun violence as well as several non-fatal shootings of children this year alone.
After the murder of Makiyah the Assistant D.C. Police Chief, Chanel Dickerson cited illegal guns as the major issue. No one disputes that illegal guns coming in to the city is a major factor, but concentrating on guns avoids the real problems that need to be addressed. The men who were responsible for killing Makiyah have not been caught, but when they are caught it is important to find out why they decided to destroy people’s lives: Makiyah’s, their own and the families and communities they are a part of. Extensive research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) explains the long term effects of toxic stress and prolonged trauma experienced in childhood, and what can happen in terms of mental and physical health when children have not received appropriate interventions and then become adults. We need to ask “What happened to you?” not to find excuses for aberrant behavior, or to dictate their final future with the criminal justice system, because they should be held accountable to the full extent of the law for their behavior, but so we can learn and address the experiences they had with systems that are supposed to be helping them, such as family, and schools.
The fact is that in the District of Columbia children living in poverty are marginalized. Children being victims of gun violence in the nation’s capital is only part of the story of the traumatic experiences that children in some segments of the city endure every day of their lives. D.C. has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country; the highest rates of asthma and sexually transmitted diseases in the country. The District also ranks 50th in school quality, a measure that includes academic performance, graduation rates, and licensed teachers.
In 2015-16, D.C. reported a 34.2% increase in families experiencing homelessness. In 2014 we had the disappearance of Relisha Rudd, a little girl living with her mother in the DC General Hospital shelter located across from the DC jail. Relisha still has not been found but we know that she was last seen with a janitor employed by the shelter who was hired by a contractor that received city funds. The janitor was found dead, and the city is still conducting an ongoing search for Relisha. Mothers and children should have never been housed in this dilapidated facility. After several years of promises, the shelter will supposedly be closed in September, even though most of the residents are unsure about where they will be living. Currently, there are also babies and their mothers experiencing homelessness who are housed in motels on US 50. Where is the outrage? The children living in these conditions have daily adverse childhood experiences that research has demonstrated can impact their physical, emotional, and cognitive growth, as well as their physical and mental health. We ask “what happened to you” so we can see where we have failed and how we can do better.
We should also be outraged about the inadequacies of our public education system that has given high school diplomas to young people who spent more time out of school than in because they were handling adult responsibilities. According to the OSSE investigation on graduation these students were babysitting their siblings, and attending court hearings, yet rather than address these issues, we looking for new ways to hold school administrators and teachers accountable for taking attendance.
In the backdrop of the marginalization of too many “other people’s children” who are poor in the city we have a new soccer stadium, condos being built and for sale starting at $600,000, the proliferation of dog parks, a growing trendy restaurant scene and other signs of gentrification, including the physical makeover of some schools, without solving the internal problems by those who are responsible for our school system. What looks like a city that is prospering is only a camouflage, it is a mask. It is easier to negotiate with developers and continue the denial, and divert attention from the ugliness of the city.
City officials have a tendency to play the blame game, blaming illegal guns for the violence, blaming the parents for children who are missing, blaming teachers and the parents for children who are not attending school, because the real reasons that these problems exist would require us to dig deep and examine the systemic problems that are a result of the city’s painful history. The city, a microcosm of the country, has not taken the opportunity to heal from its past. The District of Columbia, a city that should be a state, that is still being treated like plantation with a governmental overseer, has learned to cover up the systemic issues of racism of socio-cultural and historical trauma that has invaded all the systems that should be able to the provide support for the overall well-being of children and youth.
Who speaks, who advocates for children and families living in poverty? Who will the children grow up to be who are living in homeless shelters, in motels, living in substandard housing, residing in food deserts, who are experiencing food insecurity, and living in neighborhoods where there is constant violence, attending schools that are not equitable by zip code, and not preparing them for the 21st century? Too many schools located in high poverty areas are focused on compliance and preparing students to be followers rather than leaders.
And when these children become adults, and someone asks them “what happened to you?” What will they say? We need to demand that our elected officials invest in the human development of all children ensuring that all of our systems are trauma informed and trauma responsive. Our schools should be community schools where there are wrap-around services that support the holistic needs of children and their families.
When a child’s life is lost in the city, there is a ripple effect that many times goes unrecognized – the city loses more of its soul, and, sadly, our hearts know what happened.
Dr. Greer also serves as Co-chair of the Research team on ACEs and Trauma in the School of Education. She is the Director of the M.Ed in Curriculum and Instruction – Educating for Change Program and volunteers with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project in Washington, D.C.