‘You should always feel OK in your home’: Why two brutal crimes in Philly could unleash extra trauma

Even more than a typical shooting, a pair of horrific incidents involving small children this weekend could puncture the city’s sense of safety.

A 2 year-old was killed on Water Street in Kensington when a gunman shot through the front windows into her family’s living room (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A 2 year-old was killed on Water Street in Kensington when a gunman shot through the front windows into her family’s living room (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Two-year-old Nikolette Rivera died in her mother’s arms on Sunday afternoon, shot while sitting inside her family’s Kensington home, according to investigators. The night before, an 11-month-old was struck by four bullets while riding in the back of his mother’s car. If the boy survives, police said, it will likely be as a quadriplegic.

The children were the youngest victims of a spree of violence that shook Philadelphia over the weekend. Though every attack leaves its own scar, these two could heap an added layer of trauma on the surrounding neighborhood.

“You should always feel that you’re OK in your home, and you should feel that when you’re with your parents you’re safe,” said Acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter. “It just makes it even more upsetting to know that there’s more people dealing with this than the immediate families that were hit.”

Coulter was saying what public health officials know well — that the pain unleashed by these horrifying crimes has just begun.

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“When these things happen in areas [where] you don’t expect them, I do think there’s an increased level of perceived lack of safety,” said Ruth Abaya, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and manager of the city’s new Injury Prevention Program. “That’s a hard thing to carry around. It’s a hard thing to be in your house with.”

It’s difficult to quantify how attacks inside a home or car differ from other types of shootings in terms of the trauma inflicted. But researchers do know that childhood exposure to trauma has lifelong effects on mental and physical health.

“The current thinking is that these experiences add up,” said Robert Sege, a pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center and an expert on the impact of firearm injuries on children. “So the more traumatic experiences a person has, the more likely they are to have adult health problems.”

Those problems, Sege said, can include smoking, drug use, early pregnancy, heart disease, and cancer. Children who grow up in neighborhoods plagued by violence are at higher risk for physical and mental ailments later in life. Young people, Sege explained, “thrive when they have a safe and predictable environment.”

Traumatic community events can rob children of that safety, and it’s important for family members and community leaders to try to recreate some semblance of security.

“If you can’t feel that way in your home, it’s an invitation to problems later,” Sege said.

Philadelphia dispatched crisis-intervention teams to the scene of Sunday’s shooting in Kensington. And the city sent behavioral-health specialists to canvass the neighborhood today, said Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director.

A recent study out of Johns Hopkins University estimated that 8,300 minors go to U.S. hospitals every year after sustaining gunshot wounds. That number largely fell over the period studied, which covered 2006 through 2014.

Still, guns are a leading cause of death for young people. Only vehicle crashes kill more Americans under 18 than guns, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

In Philadelphia, officials are pleading with the public for help solving this weekend’s crimes. They’re offering $30,000 for tips leading to arrest or conviction in either case.

The shooting that critically wounded the 11-month-old took place Saturday night.

The victim was in a car with his mother, traveling north on Seventh Street in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia, police said. Detectives believe there was another person in the same car that may have been the intended target.

The child was struck four times and rushed to the hospital, where he is in “very, very, very critical condition,” according to Nicholas Brown, commanding officer of the Philadelphia Police Department’s East Detectives Division.

The Sunday afternoon shooting took place shortly after a nearby shooting in which no one was injured. Based on shell casings recovered at both scenes, police believe the two shootings are connected.

The casings in question come from an assault style rifle — likely an AK-47 or an SKS rifle, said Jason Smith, commanding officer of the city’s homicide unit.

One of those rifle bullets fatally struck Nikolette Rivera, 2, in the head.

She was in her mother’s arms when she was hit. Her mother was hit twice, along with a carpet cleaner who happened to be in the Kensington home at the time, officials said. Rivera’s grandmother was also in the house during the shooting, and police said three other small children were present.

As with the car on North Seventh Street, police believe the Kensington home was targeted because the assailants assumed a specific person was inside. That person, Smith said, did not turn out to be inside during the shooting.

Police encouraged anyone with information to call their tip hotline at 215-686-TIPS (215-686-8477). 

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