Prime Time Crime

 

(Primetimecrime Aug. 24, 2009)

 

Shattered Youth

The forgotten surviving children of homicide

   

     By Sandra Martins-Toner

 

The impact a murder has on the surviving young siblings of homicide seems to be a topic that is relatively closed, or speculative. Although murders continue to plague our country, we rarely hear about how this has affected the children of these families.

As a mother of a murdered child with two surviving siblings aged twelve, and eight at the time of his brutal death, I can tell you first hand that my children had no idea as to how to cope with the loss of their big brother. For the first few months they internalized their pain, as they saw how terribly I was coping. This internalization quickly turned to rage and anger that would be directed at those closest to them.

I watched my boys go from carefree and happy, to angry and aggressive children.  They began by destroying things in their rooms, to yelling and screaming at my husband and I in order to release their frustration. It escalated to the point where my high school bound child couldnít even get himself out of bed in the morning for school, and my younger son had completely shut down all together. He refused to even sit at his desk in school and would remain lying on the ground motionless for hours at a time. This left not only the school at a loss, but as parents we felt as though we were failing them miserably.

I remember spending an entire day on the phone scouring for resources, anything to help my children, only to come up empty handed and extremely spent. The anguish I was already feeling was only being exacerbated by a sense of failure as a parent. How was I going to help my children, if I could barely help myself?  Before we could even mark the first year of Matthewís passing, my husband and I had pulled our sons out of public school and began trying to home school them.

I know that I am not alone in this crusade to find resources for surviving children of homicide. Just recently, I have heard talk of new studies and surveys being conducted in order to understand better the needs of these children. My concern here is what are we going to do for the ones that have already gone so long without the proper care? How many of these children will become violent offenders themselves due to the trauma they have already endured? This question crosses my mind almost daily, as I can see how vindication seems to consume them, but the cost of retribution will certainly only make them no better than those that destroyed their lives to begin with.

Children/Youth will feel the tension, anxiety, confusion, lack of support, and apprehension, regardless of their developmental stage or ability to understand the traumatic event. Parents may be so devastated by the murder that their ability to meet their children's emotional needs is inadequate. Often, this withdrawal of support is more distressing to the child than the loss itself. It is said that some children will not complete the grieving "process" at the time of the loss, but will do so once they reach adolescence and well into adulthood. These suppressed feelings get inwardly projected towards themselves in the form of self hatred, and a diminished feeling of self worth.

Sending a child to a therapist can become very costly for the families/victims. The government agencies in place to help victims of crime will only pay a portion of the fees, and regulate the amount of visits/hours allowable. How can we place a time frame on such a necessary resource? This type of trauma counselling can be extremely beneficial if the therapist is specialized in dealing with sudden and traumatic death. Taking a youth to see a therapist that doesnít specialize in this is like visiting a podiatrist (that treats feet) when you have a sore throat; itís just not going to work.

The problem is that there arenít many specialized therapists out there, and the waiting lists can be outrageously long. Unlike adults, children have little to no other avenues for support. There are no groups to join for peer networking, and even if there was, most kids wouldnít feel comfortable enough to partake in this type of verbal purging. My own sonsí werenít even able to articulate what they were thinking with me, so how could we expect them to talk with complete strangers. Often times these children feel lonely and isolated. They cannot grieve normally because they have not dealt with the traumatic loss.

I can only pray that as a mother of a murdered child I have been able to do enough for my surviving children. The best advice I can give to other families now living this nightmare is to deal with the issues as they present themselves. Donít tell yourself that itís just a passing phase, and they will grow out of it. Find them the resources they need, regardless of how difficult this may be, and support them through their darkest hours.

Sandra Martins-Toner is the founder and executive Director of F.A.C.T. and can be contacted at sandra@familiesagainstcrime.org.

 

Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2009