Killing Innocence: Why Chicago’s Gun Problem Hurts All of Us

We ask local parents on how they talk to their kids about Chicago gun violence in the news

You’re cooking dinner and the headline scrolls across your TV.

“12 Killed in Weekend Shootings.”

You pause, your spoon hovering inches above a simmering pan. How terrible, those poor families, you think. You shake your head.

And then you eat your dinner, talk to your kids about their day and life goes on.

Meanwhile, a vicious war zone thrives, ripping away the childhoods of scores of Chicago’s kids.

It doesn’t matter what political party you cling to. It doesn’t matter how affluent your family is. It doesn’t matter if you live on the South Side or in the suburbs.

The gun violence is not a fleeting headline across a TV screen. It’s a deepening wound, with 2,986 shootings in Chicagoland in 2015.

And as January ended with the dubious distinction of the deadliest month in Chicago since 2000, it’s clear that Chicago’s biggest problem isn’t going away.

What local parents have to say

We asked parents, “How do you talk to your kids about the violence in Chicago and the world?”

  • “I live in Uptown, so my son has seen it firsthand. He was born in it. The greater task is keeping him from being desensitized by it.” – Ryan Salzwedel, Chicago
  • “I have no explanation. I tell the kids that I don’t understand it either. All I can tell them is that we will always keep them safe.” – Kerry Quirin, Downers Grove
  • “It’s been difficult. I have bright girls; a teenager who keeps up with current events and a smart second-grader who catches headlines in passing and is curious about the details. We talk about it; I figure if I frame it for them, they can ask their questions of me rather than rattling around possibilities in their heads. We talk about evil, about poor choices, and that there are things that happen that we just can’t understand. I support them in not being scared, but rather in being aware and educated. I allow them the space to process and question, and most importantly, I pray that their experience with this violence locally and internationally is limited to talking to Mommy rather than ever having a personal experience.” – Rani Morrison, Oak Park
  • “As we talk, I quote Mr. Rogers’ mom, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ This encourages him to focus on the positive side of life events.” – Kate Atkins-Trimnell, Homewood
  • “My kids are older, so I keep them aware of the violence going on. I try to keep an open dialogue about it. I try to show them that everything is a choice and how bad choices affect themselves and others.” – Tracie Guzolek, Chicago
  • “We discuss the unpredictability of individuals with their choice of actions, what could be done and how we could help people who suffered. We also discuss the importance of not generalizing a race or a religion.” – Rebecca Moulfarha, La Grange Park
  • “When we discuss violence in Chicago and the world, we start discussions based on their questions. From there, I’m as truthful and ‘real’ as I can be without scaring them. I also have the twins come up with solutions on how they can make a difference with decreasing violence in Chicago and the world, so as they grow up, they can make different decisions, take different actions that will hopefully one day decrease the acts of violence taking place in our city and our world today.” – Diane Oliver, Chicago

The frontlines

When Catherine Humikowski took the job as medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Comer Children’s Hospital on the South Side, she felt up to the challenge.

That is, she says, until her first week on the job. In her first week in Chicago, she treated as many children with gunshot wounds as she had in two years at her former job at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“I left Boston thinking I had seen it all,” she says. “But by the end of the first week, I realized I was completely unprepared for this level of physical and social trauma associated with poverty and violence. It was a stark difference, a total reality check.”

That shock wore off quickly, and Humikowski says her horror gradually turned into numbness.

“It becomes part of your routine, and to think that a child who’s been shot would be a part of anyone’s routine had me sit up and realize this story needs to be told.”

Humikowski says from where she sits in the ICU, the volume and significance of gun violence is still beyond imagination. She says it seems like the kids only get younger and the weapons only get more powerful.

“It’s reached a level of insanity. These kids would have grown up to be productive members of society. This is everybody’s problem, and everybody has to collectively demand a solution so that kids everywhere are safe daily.”

But after so many news stories with the same devastating lede, after being cited in countless studies as one of the country’s most brutal cities in regards to gun violence despite holding some of the strictest gun laws in the U.S., it’s challenging to remain optimistic in Chicago.

“A child who survives a gunshot wound doesn’t feel the same way for doctors,” she says. “We might be able to heal that kid’s injuries, and they might recover. But that sense we normally have of achieving something for a child is not there because where do we return them? If they do get better and can go back home, they’re going back into the communities where they got shot and where violence is normative. They’re just going back into a cycle of violence that puts them at risk.”

It is especially difficult to remain positive when the root causes of Chicago’s issues are so complex.

There’s no reasonable explanation, for instance, why Joy McCormack’s son, a stellar student from Lincoln Park, was shot by gang members on Halloween night. No simple reason why Pam Bosley’s son with a passion for gospel music was killed outside their church on the South Side.

These two moms aren’t surrendering to the violence; they want to be part of a solution.

McCormack discovered her way to help by starting Chicago Survivors, a nonprofit that provides services to assist families affected by gun violence. Bosley began working at the safe haven youth program at The ARK of Saint Sabina to be a resource for children in the “urban storm.”

“There’s a real consequence to not caring about this,” McCormack says. “I would just really like for people to be willing to care before they have to.”

And despite the heartbreak associated with her job, Humikowski has never lost faith in the idea that Chicagoans can fix this problem and heal these children.

“Within a child is infinite capacity for growth and good,” Humikowski says. “I think that’s what keeps me–perhaps naively–committed to believing we can make this problem better. And that’s what keeps me, and all of us, going.”

Everyone’s problem

“We should care, we all should care, because it’s robbing our community of an entire future generation,” says Bradley Stolbach, who treats about 150 to 200 children a year who have been affected by gun violence in Chicago.

As a clinical psychologist, trauma counsel leader and director of Healing Hurt People Chicago with the University of Chicago, his job is to provide ongoing intensive case management, hospital-based support and trauma psycho-education to every patient under age 19 who has been injured by gun violence.

“For people who live in communities where the violence is happening–even if it’s not happening all the time–it’s a constant stress because they always have it either in the back of the mind or the front of their mind that something life-threatening could happen,” he says.

“Their sense of safety is compromised all the time. It limits their mobility and activity. It limits their quality of life.”

According to Stolbach, gun violence in Chicago isn’t even at its highest point in history, but the average age for the perpetrators and victims anecdotally does seem to get younger and younger every year.

“I think that the story that’s generally told is that there’s a small percentage of people who are bad people who are criminals, and they are responsible for all the bad stuff that’s happening. And that’s just absolutely untrue,” he says.

In contrast, one of the main issues, according to Stolbach, is an exploitation of children from a young age because of economic and social status. He says many recent studies have shown that children who grow up in gang-infested environments exhibit many similar psychological issues as that of child soldiers.

“We need to change how we think about our children,” he says. “If many of these children were in Colombia–where they’re in very similar situations–they would be viewed as child soldiers, but that’s not how we view them here.”

There are a few basic responses Stolbach notes individuals have when immersed in this type of traumatic environment, regardless of age: fear, sadness and anger over a sense of injustice.

“One of the things that happens with trauma in general is that we don’t want to talk about it or think about it,” he says. “So a lot of bad things that happen end up being avoided or they go unacknowledged.”

But he says the number one thing he focuses on while treating children is giving their feelings a voice.

“A lot of the time, people carry these feelings around with them and don’t have opportunities to talk about them with others, and then the feelings may influence their behavior in ways they might not even be aware of.”

Stolbach says this is particularly the case with kids, so the next step he always takes is to identify adults who can provide support and help them feel safe. He says one of the biggest mistakes society makes when it comes to children and trauma is thinking that the trauma won’t affect them as deeply as it does adults.

That’s one reason Chicagoland schools bring in experts like Dion McGill with the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence to spark conversation and provide alternatives to violence.

“They know the violence is happening,” McGill says. “They need to know why and what they can do about it.”

And McGill says that he can tell when he visits schools that kids are looking for a platform on which to talk about their fears.

Because, as Stolbach says, the really difficult thing in his experience is that, most of the time, when a child is shot in Chicago, it is not the first or the last time they’ll be around gun violence. That trauma just continues.

Even if they never directly experience a gunshot wound again, he says their bodies persistently take them back to the injury. Randomly, their hearts will race, their minds will panic, their nightmares will manifest.

For children in Chicago, the war never ends.

“The world is unpredictable, and things that are horrible can happen, and they can happen to any of us,” Stolbach says. “I think that is true for children and adults.”

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