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Gunshots Reverberate in Children's Lives

WUWM has been reporting on the impact of gunshot injuries. Bullets wound hundreds of people in Milwaukee every year, and change their lives. Ann-Elise Henzl focuses on the youngest victims: the children shot.

It was 14 years ago when a bullet pierced Davonte Hill’s body. Yet he remembers the moment vividly.

“I was only six years old, I was staying in the Hillside area, I was outside, playing in front of my house.”

Hill says he did not realize he was playing in the midst of a gang war.

“I guess somebody who was a target of another gang or another clique was near me, so a rival gang came in the area and started to shoot in that area, and I got caught in the crossfire, in my arm.”

Hill’s mother heard the gunshot and rushed to his rescue. His arm healed without complications, but Hill says something inside changed.

“It’s deeper than a physical scar, it’s more of a mental scar.”

Hill says ever since, he’s been hyper-conscious of his surroundings.

“I pay more attention to close detail now, more than anything. And it’s so second nature now, that that’s just how my thought pattern is.”

Hill says he also advises children to be aware. The 20-year-old works with at-risk youth at Running Rebels. He says many live in dangerous neighborhoods.

“So I always tell them, you know, mind your surroundings, be aware, know the neighborhood that you’re staying in. Or even if I come into contact with a parent of the youth down here, I always advise the seriousness. It may be, you know, ‘oh, my kids – everybody in the neighborhood knows my kids.’ But what if somebody else who’s not from the neighborhood…? I mean, it’s a situation that can’t be controlled at all.”

Hill says his cautiousness may seem more like paranoia, but it’s kept him safe.

“I’ve moved a plethora of times around the city, and everywhere I go there’s always gunshots. It’s something I’ve come to terms with. I mean, we’re in dangerous times right now.”

Some Milwaukee children do face dangerous conditions, according to Toni Rivera-Joachin. She’s manager of Project Ujima. It’s a program Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Community Services runs, to stop the cycle of violent crimes.

Rivera-Joachin says critical gunshot injuries to kids were up in 2012.

“Not just the normal -- what we would call ‘normal’ -- shot in the leg, shot in the foot, usually meant to scare the child. We’re seeing life-threatening injuries. We’ve had kids shot in their head multiple times, we’ve had kids shot in the chest. So there’s definitely a target to end these children's lives.”

When a child has been shot, emergency workers page Project Ujima. Staff members rush to the hospital to meet with family members. Rivera-Joachin says her caseworkers stick with the family through the hospital stay, providing support. It can be as simple as giving the parents food vouchers, or as delicate as talking the adults out of seeking revenge.

“Families are angry and they want to retaliate, and that’s a normal feeling. It’s hard for people to hear that, but that’s a normal reaction. When your child is hurt, you want to hurt someone else for hurting your child. What we try to teach people is that that’s not going to resolve the conflict, but cause more violence.”

Staff members also counsel the wounded children.

“Many times kids who are victimized become perpetrators because they’re scared. At the hospital we fix them up and they’re ‘ready to go,’ but those wounds that are deep inside, those emotional things, they’re going to have those for the rest of their lives.”

To help the family begin moving forward, Project Ujima will assist the parents in transferring the child to another school, if that makes them feel safer. Workers also will tag along in court, if the victim has to testify. And Rivera-Joachin says Project Ujima connects the children with therapists and support groups.

“All of the kids that are in our program are kids who have also been victimized, so they’re building that peer-to-peer support with kids who understand -- truly understand -- what they’ve been through.”

According to Rivera-Joachin, Milwaukee is one of a small number of cities offering comprehensive services for young victims of violence, and is viewed as a leader, nationwide.

Yet she says there’s a need for more help here, particularly mental health providers, who speak Spanish and Hmong. Rivera-Joachin says if therapists don’t understand young victims’ language and culture, children are unlikely to share their deepest emotions.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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