Protesters gather in Kenosha the second night of protests on August 24th, 2020. This was before the clashes with police later that night. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake seven times in the back as Blake leaned into the driver’s side door of his car on Aug. 23, video of the incident shows. What the video doesn’t show is that three of Blake’s children were sitting in the back seat.
The children, ages 8, 5 and 3, were forced to watch as Sheskey fired his gun at close range into their father.
“His three children were in the rear of the SUV, screaming as Kenosha police officers shot their father (it bears repeating) in the back,” states an account of the incident on the website of civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents the Blake family.
The Blake family is concerned about the children’s emotional well-being.
“They’re the future of my family, so if you don’t take into account their psychological wellness and the wellness of the whole situation going down that road — it’s a long way to go down that road,” Jacob Blake Sr., the children’s grandfather, told CNN. “Educationally, socially — there’s a lot of things that we have to make sure that they’re OK for.”
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An acute trauma such as watching a parent be shot by a police officer can result in long term problems, according to Dr. Ryan Herringa, director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the UW School of Medicine.
“The risk, even if a child doesn’t develop PTSD immediately, they’re at higher risk down the road for PTSD, depression, anxiety, academic performance may suffer, higher risk for substance use as well,” Herringa says. “Without adequate support and care early on, kids are at higher risk.”
That early help is crucial, he says, and not just for the children but for the whole family to deal with the trauma. Brandi Grayson, CEO and founder of Urban Triage Inc., echoed Herringa, saying that children take cues from the adults in their families so it’s important to support everyone.
“The children and adults … the kids only know what we model, the way we handle it,” Grayson says.
Urban Triage works with children of color in Madison’s school district, responding to acute trauma such as a police shooting.
“We would immediately send a direct referral to our clinic here that’s Black-centered with Black therapists,” Grayson says. “We’d send a direct referral and connect them with that clinic. We’d then work with the family one-on-one, coaching, grief counseling. We’d refer to psychologists and grief counseling and a support group. We invite people into our space so they can feel wanted, needed, supported and figure it out. If they say ‘I don’t know how to pay my bills,’ we’ll spring into action, help the kids with school, whatever the family needs.
But it’s not just about immediately getting family members into therapy, according to Grayson. Sometimes children and adults need more time to process what happened to them before they’re ready to see someone.
Every family and even every child is different, Herringa says. So as a professional helping people deal with trauma, it’s important to allow everyone to react in their own way.
“Psycho-education is really trying to normalize the many different responses kids and families may have after a horrible event like this one,” Herringa says. “That might mean no feelings at all, feeling numb, feeling scared to walk outside because maybe you’ll get shot, too. Might mean not wanting to go to school, suddenly regressing like bedwetting again.”
“There are all these different reactions and it can be helpful for families to know there’s no single response to a traumatic event like that,” he continues. “The responses kids and families are having, they’re not alone. Just normalizing that can go a long way.”
Grayson and Herringa agree that children who experience an acute trauma need ongoing support. Good options, Grayson says, are therapy and mentorship.
“They need mentors who understand the importance of unpacking trauma and they need ongoing therapy and really supporting the importance of therapy,” she says.
While the trauma of the Blake family is acute, there is also the risk of more general trauma and stress caused to other Black children and families by seeing another Black person shot by police. Both Grayson and Herringa say that racial disparities in Wisconsin; the country’s history of white supremacy, slavery and discrimination and the repeated airing of police shootings of Black people on the nightly news can have a traumatic effect.
Urban Triage, Grayson says, focuses its work on helping children and families understand that their views of themselves have roots in 400 years of racism.
“Because of Black people existing in oppressive systems, we’ve passed along generations of trauma,” she says. “We end up embodying inferiority and devaluing ourselves, that’s traumatic as hell.”
The reality of living as a Black person in America comes with its own minefield of insults and obstacles, according to Herringa.
“In the case of racially motivated or racist traumas like this, those can add up over time,” Herringa says. “Even if it’s not as severe of a trauma as this one, every race-related insult or exclusion or harassment adds to that whole feeling of not being welcome in society. In the context of racism, it’s not just a single event, it’s the entire onslaught of even small events and big ones like this.”
Aside from dismantling the systems that allow racism to persist, Grayson says it’s important for Black children to understand how their self-image is partially created by outside, historical factors.
“When people and children understand the context of their existence, they no longer identify with it,” she says. “You mean to tell me I’m not Black and ugly? That I’m deserving of love? When we talk about helping trauma in Black communities it is the language and distinction to name what they’re experiencing.”
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