Like many Chicagoans, Latoya Winters was stunned by the fatal shooting of 11-year-old Shamiya Adams at a sleepover in July. Shamiya and several friends were in the bedroom of a home in West Garfield Park. They were circled around a pretend campfire, about to microwave s’mores, when a bullet fired at some boys outside came through a window. It struck Shamiya in the head; she died the next morning.
Winters lives a few blocks away. “I ride past that street all the time, and it’s hard to take in,” she’s telling me on an August morning. “I have a lot of little cousins and nieces. We have sleepovers at my sister’s house, we paint nails and watch movies and order food. Who would think that you aren’t safe inside a house, doing little girl things?”
But Winters knows that children anywhere in her neighborhood aren’t really safe. She’s spent most of her life in West and East Garfield Park, neighborhoods besieged by poverty and violence when she was born 26 years ago, and ever since.
She grew up looking over her shoulder. “I feared for my life, and I feared for the life of the kids that I lived with, that I went to school with, all these young kids in the neighborhood I knew. You can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even in the right place at the right time, and something bad can happen.”
We’re in an office at Marillac House, the 100-year-old social service agency near Jackson and California, where Winters works with children in summer- and after-school programs. Some of the younger kids in the summer program have had questions about the sleepover shooting, she says. “They want to know, ‘Why was that girl killed at that party? She wasn’t doing anything wrong.'” Since there isn’t a good answer, Winters mainly listens sympathetically.
We talk about another fatal shooting of a child that happened seven days after the one that claimed Shamiya. This one was in East Garfield Park. Shortly after 6 PM, a car drove up to the corner of Lexington and California, and a passenger stepped out and opened fire on a group of mostly youngsters in front of a convenience store. Thirteen-year-old Sam Walker was shot in the head and killed, and six others were wounded, including three 14-year-olds and a 15-year-old. Police say it was a gang-related shooting.
After ambulances had taken the victims away, a shaken 12-year-old girl had tearfully described the distressing sight of her dead friend to a Tribune videographer: “I saw the gunshot wound that was on the side of his head. . . . And the way the blood splattered from Little Sam, it was just like water the way it poured forth.”
That shooting was less than a mile from Marillac House. The kids in the summer program there had questions again, Winters says: “Why was that boy killed when he was only going to the store? I went to summer school with him—he was my friend.”
She worries about the girls who were with Shamiya when she was killed, and about the kids near Lexington and California who saw the aftermath of that attack. How will the abrupt and inexplicable deaths affect them? Winters knows from her own experience that “things you never see coming, they will really stick with you.”
She was talking recently with a friend who’d lost both parents to cancer. “Time heals all wounds,” the friend said. Winters politely disagreed. “I have some wounds—time has passed and passed, and they’re still open,” she told the friend. “There are things that happened to me years ago that still feel as if they happened yesterday.”
Winters woke up early on May 7, 1997, and began dressing for school. She was eight. She and her six brothers and sisters lived in their grandmother’s brick two-flat, just east of California on Jackson. Their mother, a drug addict, was in jail. Winters was looking for her shoes under the bed in which two of her sisters, ages six and ten, and a teenaged brother were sleeping, when she saw flames in the room. She recalls her screams waking others in the apartment, “but not the three people that I’m trying to wake up.” With the smoke thickening, she ran outside. Her two sisters were found “hugged up together” in the bathroom. They died of smoke inhalation.
The family split up while the two-flat was rehabbed; she stayed in West Garfield Park, with her father, then with her paternal grandmother. Her grandmothers told her that her sisters had gone to a better place—that they were in heaven. It didn’t console Winters much. She cried herself to sleep on many nights. “I was confused—I didn’t know what had happened or why.” She didn’t receive any regular counseling. At school, she had trouble concentrating. And though she couldn’t label it until years later, she was afflicted by guilt—the feeling that she could have done more to save her sisters.
A year after the fire, her family was able to move back into the two-flat on Jackson. She had mixed emotions about this—joyful memories of the place jumbled up with the deeply painful one.
Winters kept busy after school in the art and recreational programs for kids at Marillac House. “I was never just hanging out on the streets or in the parks or just walking around in the neighborhood,” she tells me. “But I knew that walking from my house to Marillac, or Marillac to my house—it’s just a block, but something could happen.”
Drug dealers worked the street corners. Her brothers and cousins were among them. Several were in gangs, so she overheard stories about fights and drive-by shootings.
“I was one of those kids who kept things bottled up inside. I thought, ‘Why do I cry myself to sleep? Why am I sitting back here by myself and everybody else is over there playing? What’s happening to me?'”—Latoya Winters
Then one spring evening in 2001, when she was 12, she was shaken awake by her cousins. She remembers hearing the rush of footsteps in the two-flat, her relatives upstairs racing down the steps and outside. She and her cousins ran out after them, and Winters saw her mother across the street, “all fell out.” Other family members were shrieking and crying. Her oldest brother, Lamont, had been shot multiple times at close range. Her uncle had already loaded him on his pickup truck and sped off for the hospital, but there was no saving Lamont. He was 23.
Winters later learned that the shooting was a retaliation: Lamont had been a Gangster Disciple, and he’d executed a rival gang member a couple of weeks earlier. “My brother lived a very dangerous life, and it was bound to catch up with him,” she says.
She attended the funeral fearfully; she’d heard that some of Lamont’s rivals were going to shoot it up. Lamont’s two killers were caught, convicted, and sentenced to 55 and 65 years, but that brought little solace.
About a year after Lamont was killed, Winters was sleeping in the living room one night when pounding on the front door awakened her. She opened the door, and her 20-year-old cousin Lorenzo fell across the threshold. He was bleeding so profusely that Winters feared he was dying, but he recovered.
In eighth grade, Winters had her own close call on Jackson, a block east of the two-flat. “There were some girls that jumped on my cousin, so our family came out, and it became a bigger and bigger fight.” Some of the other girls got some boys from Rockwell Gardens, a housing project in the neighborhood that since has been demolished. One of the Rockwell youths brought along a gun. He waved it in Winters’s face, then pointed it elsewhere and started shooting. One of her cousins and two others sustained minor gunshot wounds.
Her difficulties concentrating at school continued. She was depressed, though she didn’t know the word for it at the time. “I was one of those kids who kept things bottled up inside,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why do I cry myself to sleep? Why am I sitting back here by myself and everybody else is over there playing? What’s happening to me?'” She had some suicidal thoughts. She thinks now that she never was able to fully grieve over the death of her sisters in the fire “’cause it was one thing after another.”
She still has difficulty sleeping. “If you drop a safety pin, I will wake up,” she tells me. She has nightmares about loved ones who are already dead. They’re alive in the dreams, but “they’re getting shot or killed.” For years, she’s distanced herself from others. “I felt like any person I built a relationship with, they’re just gonna die on me.”
Childhood trauma can cause both immediate and lasting harm. In the short term, it can trigger disturbances in mood, behavior, attention, and impulse control; it heightens the risks in later life of psychiatric, cardiac, immunological, and gastrointestinal illnesses. The most serious problems are experienced by those who develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Those with PTSD may experience flashbacks and nightmares related to the traumatic event. They may blame themselves for what happened and feel alienated from others. Many with PTSD are “hypervigilant”—always on guard for potential threats.
PTSD was first studied in combat veterans, but in recent years it’s become clear that children are especially susceptible: development of critical areas of their brains may be impaired by the inundation of stress hormones released during exposure to trauma.
“For incidents in middle-class communities, we’re really good now with psychological first aid. Look what happened in Newtown—every kid was getting something. But in poor neighborhoods, where trauma is more chronic and embedded, we’re less good.”—James Garbarino, a psychology professor at Loyola University who’s studied the impact of violence on children, both in foreign war zones and in high-poverty Chicago neighborhoods
“Toxic stress” in childhood can create a stress-response system that is “overly reactive or slow to shut down,” Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child observed in a working paper, written in 2005 and updated in January. “As a result, children may feel threatened by or respond impulsively to situations where no real threat exists.” In poor neighborhoods, childhood trauma can thus be part of a vicious cycle, predisposing victims to perpetrating violence that exposes yet more children to trauma.
James Garbarino, a psychology professor at Loyola University, has for decades studied the impact of violence on children, both in foreign war zones and in high-poverty neighborhoods in Chicago. The emotional wounds sustained by children in both settings are similar, he says. But children in foreign war zones have one advantage: they sometimes can see a meaning to their suffering, which can mitigate the psychic damage. “In Nicaragua we met this girl who had her arm blown off in the uprising against the dictator [Anastasio] Somoza,” Garbarino says. “For her it was a badge of honor, and people identified her as a hero. If you’re just sitting in your room on the west side and a bullet comes through the window and you lose your arm, it doesn’t have any larger meaning to it.”
Trauma “has these profound effects that can start very early in life, but that are often dismissed,” he says. In one after-school program in a Chicago housing project he studied in the 1980s, he observed three- and four-year-olds playing “funeral” regularly. “They would make a coffin out of their blocks, and take turns being the dead child and the grieving parents.”
Not all children who experience a trauma develop PTSD. But the risk is much greater for those who suffer repeated traumas—which means it’s far higher for children in poor neighborhoods than in middle-class and affluent communities.
Children who are exposed to community violence are also less likely to develop PTSD if their homes are “strong, positive, well-functioning places,” Garbarino says. But since poverty is highly correlated with child maltreatment, poor children are less likely to have such homes, he says. “If you live in a violent community and you’re maltreated at home, that’s the double whammy.”
From 1985 through 1994, Garbarino was president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, here in Chicago. He says that in the last 20 years, knowledge about childhood trauma and how to treat it has grown markedly, but the improvement hasn’t benefited everyone equally. “For incidents in middle-class communities, we’re really good now with psychological first aid. Look what happened in Newtown—every kid was getting something. But in poor neighborhoods, where trauma is more chronic and embedded, we’re less good.”
He has doubts that the overall picture in poor neighborhoods is improving. It may have even worsened, he says, what with middle-class African-Americans moving to the suburbs, concentrating the poverty of those left behind. “The escalating availability of lethal weapons” has exacerbated things, he says.
Will we ever get to a point where kids in poor neighborhoods aren’t constantly fearing for their safety? Garbarino sometimes wonders. “You have bad days, and hope subsides. But then you meet remarkable people who do heroic things, and you think, ‘What a wuss I would be to be hopeless in the face of their optimism.'”
When Winters was in eighth grade, administrators at Marillac persuaded her to apply to Boys Hope Girls Hope, a residential program for disadvantaged teens with academic promise. “She was very bright, but we were concerned about her getting lost in the shuffle if she went to the local high school,” says Maureen Hallagan, Marillac’s executive director. “So many of the kids she knew had dropped out of school and joined gangs. She’d shown perseverance, rising above the problems her family had. We knew she could handle this.”
It meant she’d live in a group home in a suburb for her high school years—an idea she was uneasy about initially. Although Garfield Park was scary, so was the idea of leaving the only place she’d ever known. But “I wanted more for myself than the corners I saw everyday,” she tells me. “I knew I had to reach outside of my neighborhood.”
“There are many days and nights I fear for my life, my family, my friends. It can just be from hearing gunshots outside my window and having to get under the bed, or get flat on the floor as quick as you can.”—Latoya Winters
She took some tests and was accepted into the program. She lived in a small group home in Evanston throughout her high school years while she attended Regina Dominican, a Catholic school in Wilmette. In the group home, she got weekly grief counseling, which greatly helped her emotionally, she says. She also started keeping a journal about her experiences.
After Regina, she attended Northern Illinois University and earned a bachelor’s in sociology. Then she returned to Garfield Park, as she’d planned, and went to work at Marillac House.
Winters says her resilience is a testament to the love and guidance she’s received from her two grandmothers, and from many at Marillac House. “I have a lot of people who care about me,” she says. She thinks leaving the neighborhood for most of her teen years was also pivotal. It allowed her to expand her horizons, she says. And had she not gotten out, “I think I would have been caught up in one thing or another. Or just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Still, she wishes that being back in Garfield Park didn’t mean having to deal with the same old concerns. “There are many days and nights I fear for my life, my family, my friends. It can just be from hearing gunshots outside my window and having to get under the bed, or get flat on the floor as quick as you can, get away from the doors and windows, and just hope and pray that everybody is safe.”
If she’s at a party in the neighborhood and someone starts arguing, “soon as I hear raised voices, my immediate reaction is to get to my car and get away, because somebody has a gun, or somebody is going to get a gun and come back shooting. I don’t even like going to clubs or big parties because of the fear that an argument will happen, a fight will escalate, somebody’s going to start shooting, somebody’s going to get killed.”
She urges the kids at Marillac to think about their futures. “You can go to college just like I did,” she tells them. But she knows that many of the children find this unconvincing. “They’re thinking, ‘College? I might not make it to my next birthday.'”
When we’re done talking at Marillac, Winters and I head outside and walk down Jackson. She wants to show me the two-flat in which she spent so much of her youth.
The brick building has a beige façade and a wooden porch. It’s a warm and sparkling day, and four young men are sitting on the porch. Winters says hi to them and adds that she can’t talk because she’s being interviewed. Later she tells me that one of the men on the porch, an 18-year-old cousin, was shot two years ago and nearly died.
She points across the street to the spot where her brother Lamont was killed. She thinks about that awful night every time she walks or drives past here, she says.
Next to the two-flat is a vacant lot. Winters hates this bottle-littered, weedy patch. The young men who killed Lamont ran across it on their way to shooting him. The cousin who fell across her threshold, bleeding, was shot here, then crawled over to the two-flat and up the stairs. One night four years after Lamont was slain, someone ran across this lot and shot her cousin, Andre. He died right in front of the two-flat. He was 17. Gazing at the lot, she frowns and slowly shakes her head. “I wish they’d build a house right here, ’cause every time I think about this lot, it’s too many bad memories.”
As we wait to cross California on our way back to Marillac, a police car rushes through the intersection, eastbound, siren blaring. It’s 12:35. The following day I’ll learn that a 19-year-old had been shot a few minutes earlier less than a mile away, on the 700 block of South Western. He was taken to the hospital in serious condition.
Back near Marillac, Winters gestures toward a newly renovated building on the south side of Jackson. Owned by Marillac, it’s scheduled to open this fall. It will have a full-size gym, with a stage and sound system for performances, and expanded space for the center’s food pantry. “Marillac is always bringing positive things to the neighborhood,” she says. “So everything in the neighborhood is not bad.”
She plans to return to college soon to pursue a master’s in social work. She’d like to counsel kids in the juvenile justice system or be a caseworker for the Department of Children and Family Services.
“We all have those days when we feel we’re fighting a losing battle,” she tells me. “But that’s not going to stop me. I know I can’t save everyone, but I can save some. I know what these kids are going through, and it’s up to me to help them.”