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Child Watch® Column: “Mama, Get Me Away From Around Here!”

Release Date: April 4, 2014

Marian Wright Edelman

Almost one year after I first wrote about Ka’nard Allen, his story—and the stories of several other children whose lives are connected to his—remain a searing example of how pervasive gun violence in our nation’s cities is killing, injuring, and traumatizing our children. As Pulitzer Prize-winning New Orleans journalist Julia Cass reports for the Children’s Defense Fund, on May 29, 2012, Ka’nard celebrated his 10th birthday at his grandmother’s house in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. He and his friends and family members were playing games in the front yard and on the porch. “We was having a party and then it’s a shooting,” Ka’nard said. Four young men carrying guns and an AK-47 ran up and unleashed a volley of bullets. Police said they were attempting to kill members of a rival group at or near the party. Ka’nard felt the sting as he was struck in the calf and on the side of his neck.

His mother, Tynia Allen, saw blood running down his neck. To get help she had to step over Ka’nard’s five-year-old cousin Brianna Allen’s lifeless body on the porch. The reach and power of the assault rifle was so great that a bullet fired near the party also struck and killed Shawanna Pierce, 33, in her car at a stop sign three blocks away, leaving three young boys without a mother.

That year, along with many before it, New Orleans had one of the highest per capita murder rates of any city in America—close to 95 percent of them committed with guns. The carnage at Ka’nard’s party, as well as at other shootings before and since, sent out waves of fear, grief and anger that linger on in the lives of the children affected.

Shawanna Pierce’s youngest son, now 3, doesn’t remember his mother. But her two older boys, Kelby, now 12, and Kolby, 8, began to cry when asked about their mother. Their maternal grandmother, still deeply grieving herself, asked them to recall things they did with their mother, who worked in the coding department of a local hospital. Disney World, she prompted, the zoo, the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival. “I can’t,” Kelby said. “I’m too sad.” Both boys have photos of their mother on their cell phone cases. Their grades suffered, although now, almost two years later, the boys’ school work is beginning to improve.

Ka’nard became frightened. “I always think somebody wants to shoot me,” he said. Less than a year after he was shot at his birthday party, he was shot again—in the cheek—when he and his mother went to a Mother’s Day parade last May. Two gunmen fired into the crowd, wounding 19 people, including Ka’nard and a 10-year-old girl.

“He panicked,” his mother said. “He said, ‘Mama, get me away from around here!’”

The body of Londyn Unique Samuels, 1, lies in the casket at her funeral as her sister, Paris, 3, looks up at her. Londyn was killed by a gun on a street in New Orleans while in the arms of her babysitter. (Photo by Chris Granger, /The Times- Picayune/Landov)

That could be the cry of every child and teenager growing up in a violent neighborhood. Some never have the chance to grow up. In the last six months of 2013 in New Orleans, a 1-year-old girl was shot to death on the street in the arms of a babysitter, an 11-year-old girl was killed in bed by stray bullets entering her home, and a 7-month-old boy was shot in the head while riding in a car with his father.

Even children who are not directly hit by gun violence suffer the collateral damage of living in an unsafe environment saturated with guns that are routinely used to settle conflicts or to exact retaliation. A striking number of low income children in New Orleans have witnessed gun violence and murders, according to a 2011-2012 screening of children between the ages of 11 and 15 who participated in a teen pregnancy prevention program. Of the 700 interviewed by the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, 29 percent had witnessed assaults with guns; 14 percent had witnessed gun homicides. More than half cited concern about “personal safety” as a source of worry, more than twice the number who worried about “being unloved.” Not surprisingly, the children reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression at a much higher rate—about one-third—than typical teenagers.

The Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, a non-profit agency that offers mental health counseling, runs a program called Project LAST—the Loss And Survival Team—that works with some of the city’s children who have had multiple exposures to gun violence. “They’ve had loved ones murdered by guns, they’ve seen people carrying guns, they’ve been threatened by guns, they’ve seen a dead body in the street—three or four different exposures to gun violence,” said its president and CEO Paulette Carter.

The trauma these children suffer—depression, anxiety, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder—is especially hard to ameliorate because “we can’t remove the threat,” Carter said. “The best thing you can do for a child who has experienced a traumatic event is to make sure they are safe afterwards. But for kids and gun violence in New Orleans, you can’t reinstate the safety, and this makes the recovery process difficult. We can’t assure children that this won’t happen again to somebody they know or they won’t see guns again or hear gunshots because they probably will.” She said that “a lot of kids we work with have a sense of hopelessness that things are never going to change.” Their schoolwork is affected, as is their potential to go on to live productive adult lives.

Most of the victims and the perpetrators of gun violence in New Orleans are 15- to 25-year-old Black males with low educational achievement. According to a U.S. Department of Justice study of homicides in New Orleans in 2009 and 2010, many of the perpetrators and victims knew each other; some were childhood friends. Most grew up in the city’s poor and more violent neighborhoods and had easy access to guns, legal or illegal. Under Louisiana law, anyone 18 or older can purchase a gun unless he or she is a felon.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the world they come up in—the environment, the social norms of their peers, the normalization of violence as the way to deal with conflict,” said Jamaal Weathersby, pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church in the Central City neighborhood. “They don’t see the relevance of school. They’re not thinking there is an opportunity for them to get a good job. I don’t think many of them can see past the block.”

David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the City of New Orleans’ consultant for reducing group violence, said that most of the murders are committed by undisciplined, random leaderless groups of high rate offenders often organized around neighborhoods or blocks—and are not about money but about “personal friction, respect and disrespect, retaliation and vendettas. It is so important that they literally live and die for it.” Dr. Kenneth Hardy, a professor of Family Therapy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, believes that the reason disrespect is so often a trigger point relates to the devaluation—the “constant lacerations to dignity”—of poor young Black males who are considered a threat and a problem, with the worst rather than the best expected of them.

Kennedy said that alienation from law enforcement underlies personal retaliation. “If representatives of the law in your neighborhood are seen not only as not legitimate but as the enemy, then when you have a grievance or somebody you know got shot, you don’t call the cops. You get a gun and friends and do it yourself.” A scathing 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that New Orleans police officers “too frequently use excessive force and conduct illegal stops, searches and arrests with impunity,” almost exclusively in Black neighborhoods. City, state and federal law enforcement agencies in New Orleans recently began focusing more on identifying and prosecuting members of the violent criminal groups committing most of the murders, including the four men charged with killing Brianna Allen and Shawanna Pierce. This strategy appears to be paying off since the city’s murders dropped by 20 percent in 2013.

Ka’nard still sees a psychologist because “I get mad real fast,” he said. His mother said he doesn’t like to go places by himself. But he attends a school he likes, has a mentor, has taken trips thanks to a local foundation, and plays drums in his school’s band. This year he was looking forward to marching in some of the city’s Mardi Gras parades—an event that should be a simple childhood pleasure, but one Ka’nard, like so many of our nation’s children, can no longer take for granted.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Submitted by Jake Streeter at: May 15, 2014
My children range from ages 10 to 16 and they have spent almost everyday of their life living in a high poverty and high crime community. But, my children have never been involved in any form of delinquent activity. They have never even been sent to the principals office. I attribute this to having parents who set a good example, have high expectations, effectively communicate consequences for negative behavior and are actively engaged in their learning process. We need to invest in parents who are their primary teachers of behavior. I believe that there is no such thing as bad students. There are only bad teachers.

Submitted by Junior at: April 7, 2014
What good does it do us to demand an extension of the Voting Rights Bill or fight for increasing the minimum wage when our children-babies!-are dying in our streets? The new Civil Rights Movement ought to focus on the right to have a party on your porch, or to be able to walk down your street, or go to the store or to school without fear of being shot. The right to vote is meaningless to murdered men, women and children, far too many of whom look like me and are murdered by people who look like me. Where's the national (Black) outrage for that 1 year old baby in the picture or 5 year old Brianna? Must they have been murdered by someone white to get us to march, scream, demand an end to this carnage? Our hypocrisy on the issue of violence against black people is killing us as sure as those bullets are!

Submitted by Marie at: April 7, 2014
Because some of these youth feel so devalued... is it possible to invite mentors to sign up to take small groups on trips to show them different views off the block where they live? I Pray daily for our youth!

Submitted by Paula Phipps at: April 5, 2014
Certainly some youth violence can be traced to the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina. Here are excerpts from official reports showing the state that New Orleans children were left in. The reports document the total unpreparedness of the school system, officially dismantled as it was, to provide even space for returning children - far less adequate support services. The mental health of students suffered as a result of the trauma associated with the storm. Two out of every five students in New Orleans in fourth through 12th grades suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Based on analysis of clinical data, researcher found that many students suffered from “predominantly disruptive behavioral disorders with underlying mood and anxiety disorders” and developed developmental/learning problems. These problems were complicated by highly limited support services. Researchers from the RAND Corporation found that many schools were not able to address the mental health needs of their students. Recovery School; District RSD Report, 2011 Transforming Public Education in New Orleans: The Recovery School District: 2003-2011 Additionally, modest estimates place the number of school-aged children currently residing in New Orleans but not presently enrolled in school at 3000-5000 students. This situation, if allowed to fester, is an emergency waiting to happen. Steps should be taken to address this burgeoning crisis; these steps could include developing an intake and registration system for these students housed at the proposed Welcome Center meant to serve the continuous waves of returning students. A system for combing New Orleans’ neighborhoods in search of these overlooked students should also be considered. Similar to a truancy prevention initiative but far more trauma-sensitive and holistic in nature and practice, such a program could connect these students to necessary services and resources, like mental health counseling, housing and healthcare, in addition to addressing their initial educational needs. Funding for New Orleans Public Schools: Legislation, Allocation, Expenditure and Recommendations Prepared by Crystal Bish with assistance from Shannon Garth-Rhodes for Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University June 1, 2007 We must learn from this to plan carefully for the children, knowing that extreme and unpredictable weather events will increasingly be the norm. New Orleans is our canary in the mines.

Submitted by Oygen at: April 5, 2014
Poverty, lack of mentors, Lack of preschool, high student to teacher ratio, national gun culture all contribute

Submitted by Snookie at: April 5, 2014
The gold standard is that parents teach children to solve conflict non-violently or at least to not involve innocent by-standards in their drama and carnage. This education is not happening. Parents may lack the skills to teach about violence, may be distracted for various reasons and sometimes are themselves traumatized by the violence. Whatever the reason violence is epidemic and requires a systematic approach. In order to assure that all of our children are educated regarding this issue, the schools could to take the lead in supplying this important social emotional learning. For some communities, violence prevention is as important, no more important then teaching math and english. Schools bury their heads in the sand when focused on teaching academic subjects to children who are daily, afraid and traumatized by community violence, acting as if this elephant is not in the room is equal to child abuse. No wonder there is an achievement gap. These children, unable to focus on academics, experiencing developmentally disruptive neurological changes, exhibiting trauma symptoms are absorbing a message from their teacher's silence. The message is that community violence and homicide is inconsequential These same children are learning to accept the unacceptable or worse they may become perpetrators of community violence because no one expressed a concern or provided tools to understand violence. Schools are well situated to provide this type of education. Stop pretending when in fact there is plenty that can be done. Stop abusing children.

Submitted by Kitten at: April 5, 2014
Last week I heard that one of the ways future prisons needed are determined by the amount of students who do not pass the 3rd grade reading test here in Ohio. I'm sure this is not the only determining factor, but it points to the importance of kids being able to read by third grade so that they can be successful in school. Up to third grade, children are learning to read. At 3rd grade and on, they are reading to learn. It is so important that we work with children when they are very young to get the fundamentals of learning so that they can have a successful life and not resort to violence.

Submitted by Cathie at: April 4, 2014
We all know about the studies and statistics; however, along with the studies should be plans for improvement.

Submitted by netteharris at: April 4, 2014
excellent, but for too long this information has been made me sad. i do therapy with children/families faced with trauma and its never easy

Submitted by barbara at: April 4, 2014
Thank you so much for your persistence in the struggle to win assure safety and respect for every child.

Submitted by Sylv at: April 4, 2014
I had no idea that so many children in USA are killed By gun violence , it's got to change

Submitted by C at: April 4, 2014
It's all so very sad. What children experience in this day and age. One would think we live in a third world country with rebels fight their government for basic civil rights. Instead we live in a country where a inexperienced person can hold a murder weapon, just as easily as holding a pen.