Helping Families of Homicide Victims in Oakland CA

Jimon Clark was thirteen years old and about to start high school when he was gunned down in August in East Oakland. He was the sixth homicide victim within the previous week making it one of the more horrific weeks of violence in a year that had already seen over 40 homicides.

Every one of those murders has a rippling effect on families who have dealt with the loss of a brother, a cousin, an uncle, a father or a sister. The trauma that people feel when they are impacted by a homicide can lead to even more violence, but a unique partnership in Oakland has been trying to interrupt that cycle. The problem is that the Crisis Response and Support Network services offered jointly by the Khadafy Foundation and Catholic Charities of the East Bay are at risk for losing the bulk of their funding due to recent budget cuts.

Marilyn Harris knows all too well about the needs of the families who have been affected by homicide. Harris’s 18-year-old son Khadafy had just graduated from high school when he was killed while riding his bicycle in West Oakland on August 4, 2000.

In the midst of her grief, Harris sought out other mothers who had lost children to violence and began to offer them support. It soon became clear that families needed more than bereavement support. Harris decided to form the Khadafy Foundation in her son’s honor to offer assistance to every family in Oakland that has lost a loved one to violence.

Over the past ten years, the Khadafy Foundation has offered support groups; organized victims’ marches, developed outreach to youth, and attended hundreds of funerals. In 2004, the Foundation offered its first annual luncheon for mothers who have lost youth to violence: 25 families were invited and 52 showed up. Parents often call Harris for advice. “Sometimes they want support about what to do on the anniversary of the death or what to tell the younger siblings who are in extreme pain from the sudden departure of their older sibling.”

Like others in the field, Harris recognizes that witnessing repeated violence can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. “Many families in our community are affected by violence, but it is not looked at with the same urgency as families that are affected by war. But it’s a war right here in Oakland and some families cannot pick themselves up again after they have experienced an act of deadly violence.”

Myesha Walker has worked at Kahadafy for two years as a Crisis Responder and frequently accompanies Harris when they are called to a crime scene after a homicide, whether it is 4:00 P.M. or 4:00 A.M. “If people who witness violence are not listened to, they internalize it; they turn to alcohol, drugs, or anger.” Harris chimed in, “If you don’t take care of that anger, guess what? Anger breeds more anger and violence and if they don’t take it to the streets, they take it to their families. And that cycle goes around and around.”

It is precisely that cycle of violence that Mille Burns, deputy director of programs for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, is trying to address. Catholic Charities works in partnership with Khadafy Foundation and is part of Oakland’s Measure Y Violence Prevention Program. Burns said, “Our crisis team makes contact with the family at the crime scene or within the first 24 hours. Our intervention might include case management, benefits assistance, help with housing, relocation, and grief and trauma counseling.”

Burns agrees that the cumulative effects of witnessing violence can lead to PTSD. “Loss of empathy, increased aggression, substance abuse, loss of impulse control, sudden violent outbursts – all of these are symptoms that we see in our kids and then we wonder, ‘why are they acting like that?’ Studies have shown that if you are between the ages of 15-24 in East Oakland, you have been personally impacted by knowing five or more people who have been murdered.”

While it may be obvious that exposure to violence is traumatic, Burns states that the effects are not always recognized as trauma. “When deadly violence is a norm, kids are not running home and saying, ‘Mom guess what, a kid in my class was shot last night!’ Mom might only find out when the son cuts school to go to the funeral. We may not be honoring the death or we may be blaming the victim. So first we have to give credence to their grief and loss.”

Rudy Smith is a Social Worker who has served as a counselor for families dealing with a homicide. “Here’s the situation: Pookie just got murdered. He may have been doing any number of good or not so good things. So when Pookie gets killed, some say he shouldn’t have been hanging out at 2:00 A.M. Some judge the kid and the kid’s family. But when an African American counselor like myself visits the families in their living room and says, ‘tell me what happened and how are you doing,’ they are very appreciative.”

Smith noted the discrepancy between how Oakland has dealt with victims who reside in the violence-prone areas of Oakland and those who do not. “Kids that come from families with pre-existing pathologies: an alcoholic father or siblings in trouble, they often don’t get as much in the way of support. I saw a young woman who was lying in bed with her two year-old daughter when there was gang activity on the street. There was shooting and a bullet went through the stucco home, hit her in the head and killed her. The child was sleeping right next to her. But it was seen as another case of an East Oakland family where ‘these things happen,’ when in fact, she was an innocent victim too.”

Harris also takes issue with some of the stereotypes of those who are killed on the streets. “My husband and I both worked for the government and my son still got killed.” Pointing to the photos of the 150 mostly youth that have been killed in the last 5 years in Oakland, Harris said, “Some of these people were working-class people. Not everybody getting killed is dealing drugs or committing felonies. Sometimes stories in the paper seem to be saying, ‘they had a record so they might have deserved it.’ But guess what? Nobody deserves to be killed.”

Harris looks at the photos of Oakland’s mostly young homicide victims on the walls of her office every day and thinks of them as sons, brothers, and nephews. “I want people to know the truth about Oakland. The truth is that this victim’s mother loved him and that she will never see her son grow up. That is the truth for his mother. The truth for the police might be, ‘we have arrested him for felony robbery,’ that is the police truth – it’s still true, but do I want to get to know who this son was? Do I want to try to save his children from becoming a victim like he was? We know the cycle can be broken, but we have to start with the younger kids not sixth grade, not third grade, but first grade.”

Burns at Catholic Charities is emphatic that in order to honor the gravity of the community’s grief and loss, their trauma has to be understood. “We have worked with families that have lost two-three family members to violence. So in parts of Oakland, you have a traumatized community where people are fearful and withdrawn, they’re hyper vigilant so the bars go up, the dogs come out, the anger is there and the fear is omnipresent.”

Catholic Charities and the Khadafy Foundation have developed strong relationships with the Oakland Police Department so they are immediately notified when a homicide takes place. They also collaborate with the Oakland Unified School District so no student loss is overlooked. “When we identify students that have been impacted by a homicide, we alert the schools. The principal might visit the family, circles of support will be formed, and counseling will be available for classmates and faculty members.”

“The murders in Oakland are social disgraces,” Burns said, “but underlining those disgraces, we need to recognize the overarching effects of economic oppression coupled with pervasive racism that has allowed vital social systems to falter and fall apart. We would all love to see a city where an act of violence is shocking where a murder is front-page news.” But in order to get there, Burns said, “We have to engage the community in an understanding that this is not just an issue for the police or the prisons. It is an issue for all of us.”

Engaging the community is exactly what these organizations are trying to do as they face the threat of losing funding. Both Burns and Harris are fighting to keep their programs alive as are many of the other programs that receive almost 20 million dollars in violence prevention monies including the Family Justice Center that serves domestic violence victims and teens victims of sexual trafficking, and Youth Uprising and Youth Alive which offers alternatives to gang life.

Even under these circumstances, Marilyn Harris has room in her still healing heart for hope. But she also understands that a violent death leaves a hole that can never be completely healed. “Healing doesn’t mean that you are recovered. Most families that are impacted by homicide are never completely healed. I have not gotten over it I have not gotten through it. I am in a point in my life that I can tolerate the pain better, but that is all it is.” Only a surviving mother can offer that kind of understanding to families who have lost their children to violence.

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6 Responses to Helping Families of Homicide Victims in Oakland CA

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  3. Lisa says:

    Thanks for writing such a wonderful piece on the effects of homicide and the survivors left behind. Myself and my family are survivors of Oakland’s remorseful homicides. My brother was killed September 5th 2004, it left my brothers and myself lost and filled with a depth of sorrow I could have never imagined previously. But for our mother the pain almost killed her… she had to hospitalized in the weeks following my brothers murder. He was Juan Carlos Pollard, a son, grandson, nephew, husband and father to his only son…and he was our beloved brother who is missed each and every day…Death is always filled with sorrow, but when death is because of homicide it takes on a whole new pain and sorrow for the survivors… Thanks for the blog entry.

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