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Exposure to gunfire a concern for Cleveland’s children: A Greater Cleveland

November 3, 2017 GMT

Exposure to gunfire a concern for Cleveland’s children: A Greater Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ten-year-old Chancellor matter of factly recalls the day gunfire erupted outside his King Kennedy home while he and his father were making sandwiches in the kitchen.

Chancellor says he and his father hit the floor and made themselves as flat as possible until the shooting stopped.

“What did you do then?” a cleveland.com reporter asks. Chancellor just shrugs and says, “we watched a movie on Netflix.

Gunfire is so common in some Cleveland neighborhoods that parents are compelled to teach their children what to do if they hear shooting. And children talk about bullets flying in the same unemotional way that a suburban child might recall a trip to the convenience store.

“A child’s nonchalance is what they want to present to the world,” said Tony DiBiasio, a child and adolescent therapist, and a lecturer at Baldwin Wallace University’s Psychology Department. “They want to look good to others, but it is more inherently a survival strategy.

“Look at the event through the eyes of this 10-year-old,” DiBiasio said. “Would you feel safer telling yourself that the gun battle was just like the Netflix show and it is over, or wondering if the bullets will come flying through the front door?”

Young children may not be able to assess the danger as being any more real than what they witness on TV, he said, “but that doesn’t mean their bodies are not churning inside.”

Parents who live in Cleveland’s toughest neighborhoods are scared. They keep their children indoors at night and remind them of what they should do when they hear gunshots.

Asked what they teach their kids, the response from parents is always to stay as low as possible until the shooting stops. If in bed, they are taught to crawl out of bed and lie flat on the floor.

Most of the kids we have met as part of the A Greater Cleveland series -- no matter how young – can recite those instructions.

An even more worrisome scenario for parents is when gunfire erupts while their children are playing outside. A natural instinct for children is to run, and that’s a difficult response for parents to override.

Consider the case of Mary Davis’ two sons, who were caught in a crossfire while playing in their East Side neighborhood. The boys, ages 10 and 15, first ran for the house, then took cover under a parked car until the shooting stopped.

A terrifying five minutes passed before the boys arrived home unharmed.

Fearing gunfire in the streets, Isaac and Violet Everhart, and their 10-year-old daughter, Tiffany, try to spend nighttime hours in the kitchen or bedrooms at the back of their Slavic Village house. A heavy black curtain hangs across the doorway to the living room, blocking any light that would indicate anyone is home.

If shots are heard, Tiffany knows to run into her bedroom and hide beneath her bed, since her room is shielded from the front of the house by two rooms, and shielded by a small storage room and the bathroom to the rear.

The Everharts have good reason to be cautious. Family members have come close to being victims of gun play on two occasions.

Isaac and his 22-year-old son, Matthew, were sitting in the family’s car in the driveway last summer when stray bullets ripped through the engine compartment of the car.

Another time, Violet Everhart was unloading groceries from her car when a gun-toting teen ran through her yard. He watched her carefully. Violet feared she would likely be shot if she looked too closely, so she focused on the groceries in her trunk until the teen was out of sight. According to police, Violet may have seen the shooter who killed somone just a couple of blocks away.

According to DiBiasio, living with the constant stress of potentially being a victim of gunfire keeps people’s stress-response systems stuck in “constant alert,” which can lead to physiological harm such as pulmonary disorders or cardiac problems, as well as depression anxiety, substance abuse or even suicide.

In children, he says, the stress can make for a bleak future.

“Some kids will respond by withdrawing from school, family and friends – retreat to somewhere they feel safe,” he said. “Or they may choose to act out by arming themselves, joining a gang and take a more reactive stand to people and situations around them.”

DiBiasio said it is not one event which places a kid at risk, “it is the ongoing adverse experiences” they are surrounded by in their neighborhoods.

“They need to have a positive ratio of positive-to-adverse events for their natural resilience to kick in to give them a chance to overcome the adversity they face in some of Cleveland’s poorer and most dangerous neighborhoods,” he said.

“They want someone who shows they care and will listen. That, alone, can be a huge variable in helping them survive.”

A Greater Cleveland is a project of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. See the entirety of our project by clicking here.

A Greater Cleveland is a call to action to the community to help identify and remove the barriers to success faced by Cleveland children in poverty. For those moved to make donations, we ask that you consider a gift to the United Way of Greater Cleveland, which is focusing on issues of multigenerational poverty that this series will examine. Because of the sensitive family matters discussed in this series, we have provided the people we write about anonymity and are using pseudonyms to identify them.