Source: USA TODAY
Eight-year-old Katrina Yuzefpolsky didn’t even realize she had been shot.
In the foyer of her grandparents’ house in Covina in suburban Los Angeles, Katrina darted toward the man at the door on Christmas Eve. “It’s Santa! It’s Santa!” she shouted at her cousins. In the seconds before she reached the door, she mistook the crack of the semi-automatic handgun for the sound of balloons popping, the red on the marble floor as paint.
As Santa brushed by her, Katrina’s mother sprinted from the dining room, Katrina in tow, and they ran. Away from the house where her extended family had gathered, away from where Katrina’s former uncle — dressed in a custom-made Santa suit that hid his weapons — searched for other victims.
Away from the house where Katrina’s grandparents and five aunts and uncles and a cousin would die, trying to hide from their attacker.
CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE
After Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders at an elementary school one year ago next week, advocates called for changes to gun laws and school security, saying the Connecticut mass shooting had proved to be a tipping point, a sign that violence had reached even the most innocent victims — groups of young children, huddled together in their classrooms.
The truth is children have always been caught in the crossfire of mass murder. Hundreds have been killed, and hundreds more have been forced to witness what some say is the most violent type of crime. It has devastated families and left permanent scars, long before Newtown became a household name.
A USA TODAY analysis of mass killings since 2006 shows that nearly one-third of all victims were younger than age 18 — 363 children dead in the past eight years. Their average age was 8 years old.
Lanza may have been unknown to the first graders he killed, but that isn’t the typical threat: Most child victims of mass killers died at the hands of someone they knew. USA TODAY’s data show that more than a third of the children who died in a mass murder were killed by their blood parent. Still more fell victim to stepparents, their parents’ ex-lovers and other family members. Only about a quarter were killed by someone they didn’t know.
And that doesn’t count the hundreds of children such as Katrina, who survived but witnessed the violence: A 9-month-old baby in Memphis, stabbed repeatedly in the leg. Two Upstate New York teenagers forced at gunpoint to thank the man who had just shot dead their mother and stepfather, because he spared them. A 4-year old who first covered her bullet wounds with Band-Aids and then met police at the door, telling them, “Everybody’s dead.”
“There is sort of this myth that our children aren’t exposed to these types of things, that it’s rare,” said John Fairbank, co-director of the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. “But it’s not rare. Children are exposed at high rates.”
Among the cases:
• Four Washington, D.C., sisters, ages 5 to 16, who were beaten, stabbed and strangled by their mother in June 2007. Banita Jacks was sentenced to serve 120 years in prison.
• Four young children who drowned after being thrown from an 80-foot-high bridge on Dauphin Island, Ala., in Jan. 2008. Lam Luong, father of the three youngest, faces murder charges. The deaths occurred shortly after he argued with his common-law wife.
• Six-year-old twin girls and a 3-year-old boy found on top of each other in a bathtub in their Tallahassee home in November 2010. Henry Segura, the boy’s father, is charged with killing his ex-girlfriend and the children after he was ordered to pay $20,000 in back child support fees.
That so many mass killings involve children as victims or are triggered by children isn’t surprising, since so many occur at the hands of their parents, said Susan Hatters Friedman, a forensic psychiatrist who studies child homicide.
Hatters Friedman’s research shows that the vast majority of child deaths start with abuse and turn fatal. But those are most often cases with one victim. USA TODAY’s data show that child deaths in a mass killing — defined by the FBI as four or more killed, not including the suspect — are more likely caused by a family member’s psychotic break. They also may be triggered by an impulse for revenge, in which one adult harms the children to punish a partner in a divorce, custody battle or breakup.
Young children are less likely to be able to defend themselves, and even older children often are unable to seek help or control a parent or family member suffering from mental illness.
“If you imagine — you’re 30 and your partner is going into a deep psychosis, you’d hopefully act to get help,” Hatters Friedman said. “If you’re a kid, you don’t know — that’s just mom.”
CHAOS AT CHRISTMASTIME
Inside Katrina’s grandparents’ house back in 2008, chaos broke out where just minutes before the family had been eating, laughing, exchanging gifts and playing poker.
Bruce Pardo, the ex-husband of one of Katrina’s aunts, a man whose divorce had been finalized just a week earlier, had spent months crafting his revenge. He wore a custom-made Santa suit; made extra large to accommodate weapons. In his sack was flammable liquid. He strapped cash to his body and had a plane ticket out of the country waiting in a rental car.
When Katrina’s uncle opened the door, Pardo began shooting immediately, hitting Katrina first, the bullet slicing through her cheek and exiting below her jaw.
The house erupted. Several adults dove under the dining room table. Relatives pulled Amanda Orza and Brianna Yuzefpolsky out the back door.
Unable to see their attacker, the Yuzefpolskys crouched alongside the house until the shooting stopped. Inside, Pardo had begun spraying gasoline. Vadim Yuzefpolsky hefted first his wife, then his two young daughters over the terra-cotta wall and into a neighbor’s backyard. Across the yard, Amanda, her sister and a cousin also hurdled the wall before flames erupted.
As the group huddled at a friend’s home nearby, Katrina finally realized something was wrong with her cheek. She would spend the next few days in the hospital, only to return home to a houseful of grieving family members.
“It was,” she said, “very, very, very depressing those next few days.”
KIDS COPE IN VARIOUS WAYS
The unpredictability of how a child will respond to violence, makes helping the survivors especially difficult.
Some are maimed, physically scarred for life. Others are left with difficulty concentrating, overwhelming grief or guilt about the death of so many others. Still more regress developmentally — research has found even children a year old who witness violence can lose skills, choosing to crawl, rather than walk, for instance.
Steven Marans, a child trauma expert at Yale University, said a child experiences an overwhelming loss of control when faced with an attack such as a mass killing. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress can create a second loss of control, he said.
“For a lot of kids, the feeling that the world is no longer safe is not an uncommon experience,” he said. “Post-traumatic symptoms strengthen that perception.”
Studies have shown that therapists need to work quickly after a crisis, which is difficult when parents or guardians are dealing with their own grief and trauma, Marans said. Re-introducing routines into children’s lives also is important.
Vadim and Leticia Yuzefpolsky adhered to that idea, putting their daughters back into school as soon as it re-opened after the Christmas break. But it wasn’t easy, they acknowledged years later. Especially when the harbinger of the attack — the sound of the doorbell — is an everyday reminder.
Katrina, still with bandages over the scars on her cheek just weeks after her shooting, said she was mostly in a daze. Some days, she refused to go outside for recess. Her teacher didn’t make her.
Brianna, a kindergartner, would cry in class. Or start talking about what she witnessed: “My sister was shot,” she’d tell her 5-year-old classmates.
Amanda Orza, whose mother died in the attack, and her adult brother and sister came to live with the Yuzefpolskys. At her new school, Amanda told none of her first-grade classmates what she had experienced. “I just tried to make friends and pretend that never happened,” she said. “I still do that now.”
When asked why she referred to Leticia as “Nina,” she said she lied: “I just tell them it means mom.”
Counseling was of limited help.
“It helped part of the time,” Amanda said. The counselor “did help me in some ways. But other ways, she just couldn’t help me. I don’t think she could stop my grieving. I’ll still miss them, and that’s final.”
Still, the family was helped by living in the Los Angeles area and Vadim, a lawyer, had a strong network of community resources.
In many parts of the country, trauma counselors are few and far between, setting up a difficult road for children confused and scared by what they’ve seen.
“We talk about the most famous mass shootings — they bring in the trauma teams, but unless it’s in downtown or a very urban area, there just aren’t the resources,” said Lisa Rothwell, who acted as guardian ad litem for an 8-year-old Ohio girl inexplicably spared after the rest of her family was killed. The girl is being raised by an aunt, who had trouble finding help within an hour of their home.
“From a national perspective, considering the scope of the problem, this is not enough,” said Fairbank, of the UCLA-Duke Center. “Many children who experience such events are not able to access care, and as a nation, we need to do more.”
A NEW NORMAL
In the Yuzefpolskys’ dining room, three giggling girls have interrupted the family’s discussion about the attack to pin a sparkly blue barrette on the patient family dog, Apollo. A tableau of normalcy that masks lives forever changed.
Earlier in the afternoon, Brianna, now 10, picked at her sweatshirt as her older sister and mother talked about what happened that Christmas Eve five years ago.
“Sometimes I still get dreams about how the fire happened,” she finally said. “Sometimes I imagine it happened at our house, and someone did that again to us, and my mom and dad died and no one would take care of us.”
While the girls still cling to beloved items from before the attack — Amanda keeps the red and black dress she wore that Christmas Eve, that her mother gave her —
they have taken steps to put the tragedy behind them. Late last spring, Katrina asked her teacher if she could make a presentation during National Nonviolence Week.
She explained how she got the scar on her left cheek, and the longer line tucked under her jaw, described what had happened to her family. The questions, she knew, would only get more difficult as she entered middle school.
“I still have my scar, and people are still going to ask me what happened,” she said, adding that the story helped her classmates open up with their own tales of bullying. “It’s not a secret anymore.”
Leticia Yuzefpolsky also has spoken at victims’ rights rallies and to grief groups, and has encouraged the girls to write letters to the victims of the Newtown shooting and a mass killing closer to home in Seal Beach, Calif.
Other families who have been through such tragedies also have been pushed to action: In Lake Havasu, Ariz., an annual walk raises awareness about domestic violence. The wife of a man killed at a Salt Lake City mall has created a victims advocacy group called Circle the Wagons to help families living through overwhelming sorrow. And the son of a Sikh Temple founder killed in 2012 by a white supremacist in Wisconsin plans to run for the U.S. House of Representatives next year.
In the hills outside of Los Angeles, however, the family’s tragedy still lingers for Katrina, the girl named most likely in her class to become president. If her classmate’s prediction ever came true, she said, “I would tell everyone that they’d have to get rid of their guns.”
“The kids — it’s sad to think about what they have to go through, like what we had to go through — what I had to go through,” Katrina said.
“For the rest of their lives, everything is changed.”