The Orphans of Broken Justice
30-year-old Charleena Lyles had 3 children (ages 11, 4, and 1), and was pregnant with her fourth, who watched and listened as their mother was gunned down. They heard the pleading, promises, screams and gun blasts echo throughout their apartment.
Dae’ Anne, the 4-year-old daughter of Diamond Reynolds, was in the backseat of Philando Castille’s car as he was shot numerous times a few feet in front of her. She went on to console her convulsing and handcuffed mother, pleading for her to calm down so that she wouldn’t be shot as well.
Terence Crutcher, age 40, was the father of three girls, ages 15, 15 and 12, and Terence Jr., age 4.
Eric Garner, age 43, father of 6 children and 3 grandchildren.
Alton Sterling, age 37, father of 5.
Walter Scott, age 50, father of 4.
Keith Lamont Scott, age 43, father of 7.
Tamir Rice, age 12, had a 14-year-old sister.
Jordan Edwards, age 15, had 16-year-old twin brothers in the car with him at the time he was shot, as well as a 4-year-old sister at home.
These are just a few of the men, women, and children killed daily by an imbalanced justice system. There are no exact statistics, but many of the men and women killed by police have children, and the children killed by police have siblings.
To experience this type of violent trauma at such an early age has profound effects on the development on a child’s central nervous system. It produces conditioned behaviors and biological responses to reminders of the trauma. For many of these kids, seeing a police officer, hearing a siren, loud bang or knock on the door, the sound and smell of fireworks, or the presence of their parent’s or sibling’s belongings can send them into an acute and overwhelming trauma response. They’ll feel as if they have never left the moment of crisis. It will be nearly impossible to stay focused in school or not act out inappropriately. In the counseling field, this is often renders a child with the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
They additionally have chronic trauma, when those sworn to serve and protect them become the most frightening, powerful, and unpredictable persons in their life. They spend their days unsure when the next time will be when their parent is pulled over for a minor traffic violation, or when they will be profiled, or when the next ‘bad thing’ will happen.
For these children, it’s like living in an abandoned minefield. They’re not sure when the next blow-up will be, but they become certain it will happen again. Chronic trauma has devastating impacts on a child’s current and future well-being. Their view of who is safe or unsafe is flipped upside down, making it nearly impossible for them to trust those in authority.
I call these children the silent victims of the atrocities. As children, they have not yet developed the capacity to express externally what is happening to them internally, rendering them unable to make sense of the trauma and often leaving them in a perpetual state of frozenness, as if time stopped when their loved one was gunned down or killed.
Not only does witnessing or being a part of their parent’s death cause them to experience the deep-seated effects of PTSD, but it also injures them as they simultaneously experience attachment trauma. Attachment to a caregiver is a child’s single most important asset in learning to regulate their own emotional state, develop a sense of identity, interact socially, process information, and learn how to connect intimately with others. ‘The brain is a cultural organ’ according to Ed Tronick, with experiences shaping how we see ourselves and the world around us. The traumatic experience of your parent or sibling being gunned down by sworn peacekeepers has ripples that echo throughout the entirety of your life. These children experience a degree of unsafety and upending that few others can relate to.
Long-term Devastating Effects
Due to the lasting effects of this complex trauma, these children are at high risk of growing up to experience pervasive and multifaceted symptoms, including depression, anxiety, various mental illnesses, and other self-destructive behaviors according to the research of ACE (adverse childhood experiences). They also are far more vulnerable to substance use disorders. The mental and emotional rewiring make it extraordinarily tough to form relationships with peers, colleagues, bosses, teachers, and loved ones.
As if that’s not bad enough, most of these kids, as so many children of adverse childhood experiences already are, will be labeled as defiant, learning disabled, aggressive, inattentive, difficult, and a whole host of other misdiagnoses. They will not receive the care they need, and will most likely be seen as threats rather than as those who grew up threatened.
All because they are children of black Americans.
For those of us that watch these stories unfold, the impact is often visceral, making us nauseous or bringing us to tears, but in time, the feeling passes. For the children of these moms and dads, the sisters and brothers of these young kids, time does not pass. This moment holds them like a vice-grip, unfortunately freezing some of them for the rest of their lives.
The system needs to change, not just so that black men and women can feel safe and protected, but also for the generations of children who, like those before them, are experiencing the life-long effects of trauma induced by the violence of a society set against them.
Keep pushing for change and don’t let up. You fight not only for those who now feel the threat of a society that seems bent on doing POC harm, but also for the generations who will follow. In a word, we pursue change for the least of ‘the least of these’.