Kerry L. Malawista M.S.W., Ph.D.

Wearing My Tutu to Analysis

Capitol Hill Shooting: Child Unharmed?

Tales from both sides of the couch.

Posted Oct 16, 2013

The news arrived as a text on my phone: Shooting on Capitol Hill, Nation’s Capitol on lockdown.

I live and work near Washington, DC.  Like most of my neighbors, I reacted to this news with an all too familiar feeling of fear and panic. My mind raced through all the possibilities: Could this be a terrorist act, or the act of another crazed gunman? Only two weeks ago scores were gravely injured and a dozen people killed by a mentally ill assailant at the US Navy Yard, just a mile from the White House.

Within an hour we learned a car had careened into a White House barricade, then backed up smashing into a police vehicle before racing away, leaving an injured police officer in its wake.  The driver then led the Capitol Police force on a wild and dangerous chase from the White House to the US Capitol. 

Later that evening I was surprised to learn that the driver was an unarmed woman from Connecticut who apparently suffered from post-partum depression after giving birth one year earlier.  Relatives of the woman have since confirmed that she had suffered from mental illness.  Medication had been prescribed from which, according to today’s New York Times, she had recently “weaned herself”.  The driver, shot to death in a barrage of bullets aimed at her car, was not alone in her vehicle.  Police discovered the woman’s one-year-old daughter strapped into a car seat in the back seat of the automobile. 

 I am sure there will be much debate among the public, Capitol Police, journalists, even Congress, whether the police acted appropriately in shooting this unarmed woman. But my thoughts keep returning to the little girl I saw carried from the car: a one-year-old who witnessed her mother fatally shot before her eyes, and before the eyes of most of the nation. I was jarred when I listened to the reporters repeating the same phrase over and over: “the mother was shot but her daughter was unharmed.” 

While I understand these reporters were referring to the fact that the little girl was not physically harmed in any way that was visible, I cringe at the notion that she was unharmed. With a high degree of certainty, based on years of accepted research, I feel certain when I say that the child in this incident has most certainly been harmed, both psychologically and yes, even physically.

The death of a parent, be it to illness or accident, is always traumatic for a child. The violent death of this little girl’s mother must be seen as trauma compounded by trauma. The social and psychological consequences of losing a parent have been well documented for decades. Recent studies go further, suggesting that traumatic loss in early childhood is a blow to the body as well as the mind. In other words, traumatic loss may well have long lasting neurobiological and physiological effects. For example a 2012 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health established that early trauma stunts intellectual development, with the impact being most damaging when the trauma or loss occurs during the first two years of life. The authors of this paper suggest that the very young are particularly vulnerable due to the accelerated course of brain development during the first years of life.

When someone loses a parent in childhood there is no step-by-step process to promote healing. Everyone, child and adult alike, grieves in a unique way. But the challenge for a toddler is greater, since she has no concept of death and few or no words to help her process what she has experienced. She will only know that the person to whom she was most attached, the person essential to her survival, is inexplicably gone.

What we will often see when an infant or toddler loses a parent is a period of vigorous protest, with inconsolable crying and tantrums. This is an expectable response from a child who does not understand why his or her parent has disappeared and is vociferously demanding that the parent return now. Often when the child realizes that the parent is not returning, angry behavior will give way to detachment and listlessness as the child gradually gives up hope. There may be a regression in development. If the child was speaking at the time of the loss, the words may stop. If she had been toilet trained, she may return to diapers. Caregivers might detect other responses including anxiety, night-waking, loss of appetite and so forth.

With older children we would encourage them to put words to their feelings. For a one year old, there are no words to help her cope, no words providing understanding or comfort. 

How a child manages long-term following such a traumatic event is shaped by many factors. These include her age when her parent died, the quality of the relationship she had with that parent, her own inborn resilience and health, and most importantly as the child moves forward, the quality and consistency of her new caregivers. 

What will likely be most important for that tiny little girl rescued from her mother’s car is for her to be sheltered with a trusted and familiar family member, a surrogate parent who can maintain a calm, loving and ongoing presence, someone who can support her and understand her grief through the difficult years ahead.

These recent horrific shootings—from Sandy Hook Elementary, to the US Navy Yard, to Capitol Hill—highlight the necessity of recognizing the devastating effects of mental illness on society. When we live in a world of fear and terror we run the risk of treating our mentally ill as terrorists, rather than providing them the help they truly need. If we are to care for our children and protect them we need to do more.  We need to provide treatment for the mentally ill, insurance coverage to pay for the treatment and early childhood programs to support the children of the mentally ill.