Erica White, 23, sits nervously while watching her 9-year-old daughter, Paris, and 8-year-old niece, Maryella, play at a North Side playground.
“They have to keep looking over their shoulders every second,” said White, a West Side resident, about the girls.
White’s uncle was recently shot in the arm and leg. A month ago, her sister was shot. She has become so scared of her West Side neighborhood that she brings Paris to the North Side to attend school at Swift Elementary.
“Innocent bystanders get hurt all the time,” she said. “Of course I’m worried.”
Paris, who is in third grade, added, “I feel really uncomfortable walking around. Sometimes I’m scared.”
The pain of losing a loved one usually eases over time, but the apprehension gripping some in poorer communities could have lasting effects.
For several years, doctors have argued that exposure to violence at young ages has a strong possibility of creating mental health problems, such as attention deficit disorder, depression, and post traumatic stress syndrome.
And perhaps the most startling belief of all is that kids who witness violence are prone to becoming violent.
“If you go into the neighborhood which has the highest homicide rate in Chicago, 75 percent of children have seen someone shot or stabbed,” said Carl Bell, a psychologist and president of the Community Mental Health Council.
At least 38 people so far this year have been shot, and 15 people killed in the last week weeks. But these shootings aren’t occurring late at night, in front of clubs, or at drug spots. Some are happening as kids walk to school and in broad daylight.
But with the increase of shootings and youth violence in some Chicago neighborhoods, many children playing outside are dealing with pressure and worries far beyond making it across the monkey bars.
Bell has done extensive research on youth and violence since the 1980s, and still counsels children at his South Side facility. His studies have involved looking at 40 risk factors, or indicative behaviors, that affect whether or not a child will exhibit violence.
He also pointed to a Department of Child and Family Services study reporting that 25 percent of children who experienced trauma showed effects of the trauma.
“In terms of the direct effects, it depends,” he said. “A risk factor, like being exposed to violence, is not automatically predictive of the outcome.”
According to Jeanne Beckman, a developmental psychologist who has researched the effects of media violence, traumas often confuse kids.
“They can’t distinguish between what they see and what they’re told happened,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for children and families exposed to those kinds of things.”
Beckman explained that traumatic acts can sometimes lead to post traumatic stress, which includes a heightened state of anxiety, mood swings and, sometimes, recurring flashbacks.
Although it has long been thought that most children who experience violence become violent, Bell insisted that is not true.
“It’s not the trauma, it’s the feeling of helplessness that causes a child to act violently,” he said. “A child needs to have a good social fabric, self esteem, sense of power, social skills, and someone then can talk to and connect with.”
Ron Rufo, a crime prevention speaker and juvenile crime specialist, noted that many juveniles who commit violent crimes are first-time offenders. Younger children charged with crimes, he added, do not progress to more serious crimes.
So like White and her girls, Rufo and Bell wonder why these kids are shooting each other. “I believe youth violence is increasing, but I don’t know why,” Rufo said. “Kids are more angry today and there’s more pressure on them to do better … Some of these kids that you talk say that ‘Hey, if it’s my time to die, it’s my time to die.’ There’s no fear of death.”