Hundreds of kids witness parents shot to death. This is what it does to them. (2022)

Kaniya Jaranilla and her brother Eman Henry search for rocks along a beach in June. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

CHICAGO —

Before she shares a photo on Snapchat or posts a video to TikTok, the eighth-grader thinks about the man she watched shoot her father.

Kaniya Jaranilla, 13, has feared for years that he would find her family again. It’s made her so paranoid that when she sends friends pictures of herself in her family’s apartment, Kaniya blurs out the background first. On TikTok, she never tags her location or shows details that could reveal the town where she now lives in hiding. Kaniya’s accounts are private, but that offers little comfort. She knows what the man can do, because she saw him do it.

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

Her memories of that day return to her in snapshots now: She is 7, sitting in the back seat of the Chevy sedan next to her 8-month-old brother, Eman, who is strapped into his car seat. Her father, Eric Henry, is driving; her mother, Kashe Jaranilla, is next to him. They’re parking along the curb near their apartment building. She hears the first boom, then the glass explodes, its shards falling like raindrops all around her. Terrified, she ducks her head and lies flat on her side. More booms ring in her ears, one after another. When she looks up, her mom is staring at her, but the woman doesn’t look like her mom anymore. Her jaw is gone, and below her mouth there is only red. Her brother is screaming. She is screaming. The booms stop, and she sits back up. She leans forward, toward the front seat. Her mother is conscious, trying to text for help. Kaniya grips her father’s stout right shoulder, one she’s held during piggyback rides dozens of times. She shakes him and asks if he’s okay. She doesn’t know he has been shot nine times. Kaniya can’t see his face, but she can hear him, gurgling and gasping. Then she listens to a heaving final breath and, afterward, nothing.

“Daddy!” she shouts, reaching back toward him as a stranger carries her away. “Daddy!”

It was Feb. 27, 2016, the day that Kaniya and her brother became two of the more than 2,400 children in Chicago who would lose a parent to a gun homicide between that year and 2020, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by The Washington Post. On average over that five-year period, the city’s pervasive gun violence stripped nearly 10 children of a parent every week. Almost all were Black or Hispanic.

But dozens of them didn’t just face the death of the person they loved and depended on most in the world. They watched it happen — an experience that researchers have found can do more psychological damage to children than if they were shot themselves.

Bullets strike thousands of people in front of kids every year, but for the often-overlooked victims present when their moms and dads are gunned down, the trauma is unique and immense. In Chicago, the experiences of Kaniya and two other child witnesses reveal the depths of sadness and anger, guilt and dread that they endure afterward.

Hundreds of kids witness parents shot to death. This is what it does to them. (1)

In Chicago, more than 96 percent of the parents

lost to gun violence were Black or Hispanic

Each dot represents the parent of a child under 18

Number of children under 18

Race of the parent

1 child

11 children

Asian

Black

Hispanic

White

2016

At least 673 children lost a parent

2017

563 children

2018

376 children

Darnell Simmons died

on March 18, 2018, leaving

one child under 18 behind.

Eric Henry died on

Feb. 27, 2016, leaving

three children behind.

2019

384 children

2020

488 children

Richard Buick died

on Nov. 15, 2019, leaving

two children behind.

Hundreds of kids witness parents shot to death. This is what it does to them. (2)

In Chicago, more than 96 percent of the parents

lost to gun violence were Black or Hispanic

Each dot represents the parent of a child under 18

Number of children under 18

Race of the parent

Asian

Black

(Video) Parents desperately search for children after Texas school shooting, fear "they may not be alive"

Hispanic

White

1 child

11 children

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

At least 673 children lost a parent

563 children

376 children

384 children

488 children

Darnell Simmons was shot

on Mar. 18, 2018, leaving

one child under 18 behind.

Eric Henry was killed on

Feb. 27, 2016, leaving

three children behind.

Hundreds of kids witness parents shot to death. This is what it does to them. (3)

In Chicago, more than 96 percent of the parents lost to gun violence were Black or Hispanic

Each dot represents the parent

of a child under 18

Number of children under 18

1 child

11 children

Race of the parent

Asian

Black

Hispanic

White

2016

At least 673 children lost a parent

Eric Henry died on

Feb. 27, 2016, leaving

three children behind.

2017

563 children

2018

376 children

Darnell Simmons died

on Mar. 18, 2018, leaving

one child under 18 behind.

2019

384 children

Richard Buick died

on Nov. 15, 2019, leaving

two children behind.

2020

488 children

It’s the fear that Kaniya has never shed, though her trauma is seldom obvious. She doesn’t tremble at the sound of loud noises or cry when movies turn violent. She gets along with both her younger brother and an older one who didn’t witness the attack. She makes A’s and B’s at school, enjoys playing violin and wants to try out for basketball in high school. Among her friends, she’s considered the cheerful one.

She almost never talks about the nauseating feeling in her stomach when a car slowly passes or a man in a hoodie walks by. She keeps private, even from her mom, the recurring dream about the dark figure who chases her, night after night, until she wakes up. And then there’s the persistent anxiety that the gunman will show up again one day and kill the rest of them.

Kaniya, a first-grader when her dad was shot, has begun to forget the man who called her his “princess.” The TV shows they watched and the games they played, the color of his eyes and the smell of his skin. It’s all faded from her memory. About his death, though, she recalls nearly every detail.

FROM TOP: Jaranilla, right, looks at photos from the beach on her laptop with Kaniya as her son Jeremiah Burns, who did not witness the shooting, looks at his phone. An old letter written from Eric to Jaranilla that she has kept at her home. Jaranilla holds a jacket that once belonged to Henry. (Photos by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Kaniya had lots of questions back then, but no one could answer them. Amid the chaos in the shooting’s aftermath, she didn’t attend her father’s funeral, leaving her memory of him dying in the car as her final one. Even when her mother came home from the hospital two weeks later, Jaranilla couldn’t speak for months. She didn’t look the same either. Her face was scarred and swollen from the bullet wound and the surgery that had reconstructed her jaw. A tracheotomy tube jutted from her throat.

Kaniya went to counseling a few times but stopped after the therapist decided that she seemed fine. And she often was. Only once did she break down at school, and at home, she seldom cried. But she almost never felt safe, either.

That was, in part, what drove her mother to find the gunman, who she believed had targeted Henry. He had spent the first few years of Kaniya’s life in prison on an armed robbery charge, but he adored his children, Jaranilla said, and had been especially devoted after his release. Determined to get him justice, and to ensure that she and her kids could feel safe again, Jaranilla posted fliers around the neighborhood, pleading for help.

A tip from a friend led her to the man she believes was the shooter. He was charged with murder, prompting people who knew him to send Jaranilla threats online, with one person on TikTok noting that at least “the kids didn’t get hit.”

FROM TOP: Eman holds his Sonic the Hedgehog backpack while his mother sits next to him on the couch. Eman hides his face after having a disagreement with his mom at their home. (Photos by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

(Video) Woman’s Children Remember the Night Their Dad Killed Her

At trial, a judge found the man not guilty, noting that the prosecution’s case relied on little more than Jaranilla’s fleeting look at the person who opened fire.

The acquittal was devastating, but it wasn’t the only setback in their family’s recovery. To support her kids, Jaranilla began driving for Uber at night while a neighbor babysat. Early one morning in December 2018, a teenager carjacked her at gunpoint.

Soon after, Jaranilla moved her family far from Chicago, and though she began sharing their journey on TikTok as a way to process her trauma, she, like her daughter, has been careful not to reveal where they live.

Kaniya has asked her mom to see a therapist because Jaranilla sometimes struggles to get out of bed. The teen wonders about Eman, too. Despair rushes over the 7-year-old without warning. In February, his school called to say he’d started crying in class.

“I just miss my dad,” he told his mom when she picked him up.

Eman became obsessed with an old photo of Henry holding him after he was born.

“I love you,” he scrawled in red marker across the image, studying it so many times that he began to imagine he could remember the moment.

One summer afternoon, he tried to envision where he had been on the day his dad died.

“I think I was in my crib,” he said.

Jaranilla, listening from the couch, considered how much to share.

“You were there, Eman,” she said.

“Oh, I was in the car?”

“Yes.

“At least I didn’t get shot.”

“Right. You didn’t. Not one bullet hit you or your sister,” she explained. “Me and Daddy took all the bullets.”

“That was really sad,” he said.

Once again, Kaniya fixated on the shooter.

“He must have not known that there was kids in there,” she told her mom. “But like, I’m pretty sure he could hear us screaming, because the windows was down. I wonder why he didn’t stop when he heard it.”

“They knew who was in the car,” Jaranilla replied. “They just didn’t care.”

“Oh,” Kaniya said, her voice now quiet. “Okay.”

Uncounted and unseen

No one knows how many children in America witness their parents being shot to death.

In the nation’s capital alone, at least seven children saw it happen over the first three months of this year. Among them: A 4-year-old girl and her 2-year-old sister who were sitting in the back seat of a car when someone shot their pregnant mother; a 5-year-old boy who was walking down the street, holding his father’s hand, when a man approached and fired several rounds; an 8-year-old boy who was riding in an SUV with his mom when a stray round struck her in the head and she slumped into his lap.

In March, a woman in Alabama was shot dead in front of her three children — ages 2, 5 and 7 — and, in February, a man in Florida was killed in front of his daughter, a toddler. On Father’s Day, a 7-year-old in California was riding in the car with his dad when someone shot him. During a summer camping trip, a 9-year-old old Iowa boy escaped a massacre that left his parents and sister dead.

And on July 4, at a parade celebrating American freedom 35 miles north of where Kaniya saw her father die, a toddler named Aiden McCarthy saw his parents die, too. In the pandemonium after a gunman opened fire from a Highland Park rooftop, a woman found the bloodied 2-year-old trapped under his father’s body. Nearby, his mother also lay dead. As the stranger carried Aiden to safety, he asked if his parents were coming back.

Like almost every aspect of the gun violence epidemic, its effects on child witnesses are seldom researched. One of the first studies to explore the phenomenon, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry in 1986, analyzed the experiences of 16 kids, including a few whose parents did not die in shootings. Every one of the children developed post-traumatic stress disorder and experienced intense flashbacks. Fifteen of them had profound problems in school the year after the assaults. Fourteen experienced nightmares. Half began to lash out.

But almost none were given treatment when they needed it most.

“It is significant how few of these children receive psychiatric attention subsequent to such a trauma,” the study read, noting that before the kids finally did receive treatment, “no one asked them about what happened.”

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

Nearly four decades later, many young witnesses remain unseen and unsupported.

“It’s crazy the extent to which we ignore these kids, and that they fall through the cracks of our system, because we just don’t have any systematic way at all of identifying them, assessing them and making sure that they’re getting whatever help and services they need,” said Sherry Hamby, a psychology professor at the University of the South whose research has examined the deep and lasting trauma children experience when they see a parent attacked.

Jaranilla doesn’t know what she’ll do if her kids one day need trauma therapy. Kaniya is bracing for the hard moments to come — father-daughter dances, learning to drive, her eventual walk down the aisle on someone else’s arm — and Eman’s outbursts have only become more frequent.

Jaranilla hopes to someday get a degree in psychology or maybe make a living through social media but, for now, she works at Dick’s Sporting Goods and struggles to earn enough to pay for her kids’ school trips or the Christmas gifts they want. Kaniya, Eman and their half brother share a three-level bunk bed in a small bedroom across from hers.

Jaranilla, her daughter, Kaniya, and son Eman pose for portraits in June. (Photos by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

How Jaranilla could afford to pay for counseling, she has no idea.

For kids who remain in Chicago, one organization has worked for years to make access easier. Founded in 2010, Chicago Survivors provides free therapy to families who have lost members to gun violence, including dozens of children whose caregivers were killed. Since January of last year, the group has served at least seven children who also witnessed those shootings.

Their trauma is often complex and unpredictable.

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

JaShawn Hill, the nonprofit’s director of clinical services, once treated a 10-year-old girl who had been in the back seat of her father’s car when he was shot.

When Hill met her the day after the shooting, she was still refusing to drink or eat or speak. She was wrapped in a blanket on the couch, unresponsive. People were talking and pacing all around her, panicked over what to do.

The girl was dissociating, a reaction Hill had seen before in children exposed to extreme violence. If she didn’t come out of it, Hill told the family, she would need to be hospitalized.

Hill returned the next day, inviting two adult family members and a teenage cousin to sit with the girl in their living room. Hill drew the curtains and played ocean sounds on her phone. She led the group in breathing exercises, and when the cousin touched the girl’s hand, tears wetted her cheeks for the first time. Her shoulders relaxed, her eyes made contact. She drank a sip of water and ate a Twizzler, and when asked if she wanted a hug, she spoke.

“Yes,” she said.

Hundreds of kids witness parents shot to death. This is what it does to them. (4)

Fatal shootings of parents in Chicago

Majority share of population of neighborhood

(Video) Children who saw parents die in murder-suicide on Christmas Eve celebrate adoption

Black

Hispanic

White

No racial majority

Location of gun homicides, 2016-2020

Austin

Garfield Park

Downtown

North

Lawndale

90

Engelwood

Roseland

94

57

West Pullman

Hundreds of kids witness parents shot to death. This is what it does to them. (5)

Austin

Downtown

Garfield Park

North

Lawndale

Brighton

Park

90

Fatal shootings of

parents in Chicago

Engelwood

Location of gun homicides, 2016-2020

Majority share of population

of neighborhood

South

Shore

Chatham

Black

Hispanic

Roseland

White

94

No racial majority

57

West Pullman

Haunted by guilt

Tyler Simmons couldn’t remember where his father’s grave was. He had seen it only once, when he was a baby-faced 15-year-old dressed in a brown suit and bow tie, standing beside a pile of freshly unearthed dirt, promising to honor the man being buried beneath it.

Now he was 19 and frustrated with his failing memory. Tyler had flown from Texas, where he lived with his mother, to his hometown of Chicago just for this moment. He’d planned to come the previous afternoon, on Father’s Day, but by the time he tried to arrange a ride with family and friends, they were all too busy celebrating their own, living fathers.

One of his dad’s old friends, Kent Grinstead, pulled into the cemetery a few minutes later and directed Tyler to a grassy, sun-parched plot along a chain-link fence. He and the relatives who’d come with Tyler spread out, examining the markers one at a time.

“Right here!” Tyler shouted, studying the words on the stone at his feet. Everyone gathered round. “Darnell L. Simmons,” the inscription read. Eyes welling, the teen leaned his head forward, hiding his face behind the dreadlocks he’d grown to look just the way his dad’s did when Tyler was a kid, before he watched him die.

FROM TOP: Tyler Simmons wipes tears from his eyes as he visits his father’s grave at Mt. Glenwood Memory Gardens in June. Tyler and his cousin Deja Wilborn stand over his father's grave. Deja Wilborn and Kent Grinstead clear dirt and grass from Darnell Simmons's grave. (Photos by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

After the shooting, Tyler had briefly experienced the fear that Kaniya can’t escape, but what’s haunted him for more than four years is guilt.

His parents had split when he was young, with his mother moving to Dallas, while his dad, a Chicago sanitation worker, remained in the city. Tyler moved to Texas after eighth grade to live with his mom, but the teen visited his father often, including during the spring break of his freshman year.

That week in mid-March of 2018 had been a joy for both of them. They’d gotten their hair trimmed together at their favorite barbershop and shared Italian beef sandwiches at a Portillo’s. “You ain’t gotta eat like that, man,” Simmons teased him, even though no one in the family could eat more than his dad did.

Simmons, 50, talked to his son about becoming a man, too. He’d shown Tyler how to work hard, waking up before dawn to empty garbage bins and, in his time off, collecting metal cans to make extra money. The ninth-grader promised he would finish high school, find a good job, make something of himself. Simmons said he believed in him.

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

When it was time to return to Dallas, Tyler asked his dad to make a stop on their way to the airport, hoping to take back a few bags of Crunchy Kurls, his favorite Chicago snack. They were running late for the flight, but his father wanted to make him happy, so they pulled off at a corner store in the neighborhood of South Austin. Tyler picked up his treat, Simmons bought a few lottery tickets, and they headed back outside, toward the car.

Then Tyler heard the shots and watched his father, standing just behind him, collapse.

For a moment, Tyler thought he’d tripped. Simmons stood and staggered another 10 feet before he slumped to the street again. Tyler rushed over as the blood soaked through his dad’s shirt. He gripped Simmons’s hand.

Tyler wanted to tell his dad that he loved him, that it would be okay, but the words never came. He couldn’t speak.

(Video) Families Of Texas School Shooting Victims Speak On Their Tragic Loss

Simmons gave his son the cash he’d walked out of the store with and told him to call his cousin Dedrick Wilborn.

“My dad got shot,” Tyler screamed over the phone to Wilborn, who had been headed to lunch with his children a few blocks away. The family arrived just before the ambulance did.

“That’s my daddy,” they heard Tyler say as he paced the sidewalk. “That’s my daddy on the ground.”

It was the last time he saw his father alive.

FROM TOP: Tyler poses for a portrait in June in Chicago. Dedrick Wilborn holds a chain with a photo of his cousin Darnell Simmons during a family reunion in June. (Photos by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Tyler struggled to do much of anything in the weeks that followed, barely eating or sleeping.

“Like my soul left my body,” he said. “Like I died with him.”

Tyler wondered whether his dad had seen the gunfire coming and stepped in the way to save him. The rounds that killed Simmons hadn’t been meant for him or his son, investigators concluded, and the men who fired them were never found.

“Wrong place at the wrong time,” Tyler’s family and friends told him, but he couldn’t shake the fact that they were at that place, at that time, because of him.

His mother, Joanna Swanigan, knew he blamed himself, despite making clear that he shouldn’t. She put him in therapy, but he quit after a few sessions, insisting his dad wouldn’t want him to dwell on what he had seen and lost that day. He told himself he needed to be tough, but he broke down on the night of his high school graduation, bitter that his dad couldn’t be there.

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

Then, in October, Tyler’s older brother, Jabre Swanigan, was walking out of a Dallas pizza shop when a stray round of gunfire struck him in the head. Jabre, 28, survived, but the wound did irreparable brain damage, leaving him blind and deaf on one side.

Afterward, their mother sensed Tyler’s impatience with his brother, who has a 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. He wanted Jabre to work harder in rehab, to recover more quickly.

When she confronted Tyler about it, he began to weep.

“I lost my dad,” Tyler told her, and he couldn’t bear the idea of his niece and nephew enduring a version of the same thing.

The anger and sadness, the shame and lingering guilt — she watched all of it pour out of him.

Now, at the grave, it had surfaced again, so Tyler stepped away from his family, hiding his face and trying to gather himself. When he returned, all of them thought back to that day and why Tyler and his dad had stopped at the store.

“Didn’t you want some chips?” Grinstead asked, looking at Tyler, unaware of how much he had agonized over that decision.

Tyler nodded, and everyone went silent.

Another of his cousins crouched down to pull away the grass that had grown over the stone’s top edge, obscuring two words. Grinstead joined her, and soon they had revealed anew the description above Simmons’s name. Tyler stared at it.

“LOVING FATHER,” it read.

A father’s fury

A different sort of father, armed with a gun and filled not with love but fury, often creates another kind of child witness.

These are the kids who grow up in households beset by domestic violence and then see their dads, stepdads or father figures kill their mothers. Those fatal shootings unfold in living rooms, in the woods, in parking lots, in apartment complexes and in bedrooms while they dial 911, begging police for help.

The devastating effects of intimate partner violence on children exposed to it have been well documented in recent years, but seeing one parent kill another inflicts an especially wrenching form of harm, in part because it deprives the kids of both caretakers: one to death, the other to prison or suicide.

And then there is the shooting one 6-year-old girl in Chicago witnessed nearly three years ago.

On a brisk fall morning in 2019, Richard L. Buick pulled into the parking lot of Moving Everest Charter School, a half-mile from where Tyler’s father had been shot the year before. Buick had brought his girlfriend and her daughter, who attended the school.

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisement

The girl’s father, Michael Dent, had already come to Moving Everest looking for her that morning, and he was furious when he learned she hadn’t yet been dropped off. Her mother, whom The Post is not naming because she fears for her family’s safety, had filed a protective order against Dent months earlier. She alleged that he had pushed her to the ground and, on another day, punched her in the face before drawing a gun — both times in front of their daughter.

After Buick parked, the girl got out of the car with her mom to head into school. Dent suddenly appeared and, investigators say, confronted Buick, raising a .40-caliber handgun and firing seven rounds into him.

The life the 6-year-old had known until then ended before her.

Her mom’s boyfriend, a man she adored, was gone. Her father would soon be arrested and face a lifetime behind bars. Her mother would never be the same. Her own sense of safety was shattered.

Most people wouldn’t suspect what she’s been through, her mom said. She’s a smart, sociable kid who dotes on her little sister and has many friends. She likes to swim and perform in drama class and wear frilly dresses. Therapy has helped, as has the support of her family.

Her mother hopes she’ll be okay, but she worries whether that’s possible. How could it be?

The questions her daughter asked after the shooting still haunt her.

“Will I ever see my dad again?”

“Did he really shoot Rich?”

“Is Rich coming back?”

“Is this because of me?”

Razzan Nakhlawi, Sarah Welch, Stephany Matat and Steven Rich contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of this story misstated the average number of children in Chicago who lost a parent to gun violence. It was nearly 10 per week.

Methodology

For this story, The Washington Post compiled the names of gun homicide victims in Chicago from 2016 to 2020.

To identify how many children the shooting victims had, The Post examined thousands of news stories, obituaries, social media accounts, public fundraisers and online memorials — though the real total number of kids is likely greater because the families of many people killed are never publicly acknowledged. The Post also did not investigate people who died by suicide with firearms because it’s impossible to identify all of them.

About this story

Editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Graphics editing by Kate Rabinowitz. Copy editing by Frances Moody. Graphics by Hannah Dormido. Design and development by Carson TerBush.

(Video) Mom Who Murdered 5-Year-Old Son: 'I Miss Him'

Videos

1. McNabb murder trial: Parents break down as baby's autopsy photos are shown in court
(11Alive)
2. This Teen Survived Family Shooting by Playing Dead
(Inside Edition)
3. Staten Island baby sitter who tortured, murdered 17-month-old boy gets 23 years to life
(Eyewitness News ABC7NY)
4. Parents Watch Home Invasion on Doorbell Cam as Kids Are Inside
(Inside Edition)
5. Father of Robb Elementary student searching for his 10-year-old daughter
(KHOU 11)
6. 'You stabbed me,' boy tells father at double-murder trial
(FOX 13 Tampa Bay)

Top Articles

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Eusebia Nader

Last Updated: 09/30/2022

Views: 6089

Rating: 5 / 5 (80 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Eusebia Nader

Birthday: 1994-11-11

Address: Apt. 721 977 Ebert Meadows, Jereville, GA 73618-6603

Phone: +2316203969400

Job: International Farming Consultant

Hobby: Reading, Photography, Shooting, Singing, Magic, Kayaking, Mushroom hunting

Introduction: My name is Eusebia Nader, I am a encouraging, brainy, lively, nice, famous, healthy, clever person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.