When David Combs' only child was missing for a half hour recently, Combs panicked: "Somebody has snatched my child," was his first thought.
When Phillis Copeland suggested to her two children, aged 13 and 21, that they tie ribbons on the trees along their racially mixed Mount Pleasant street to mourn the deaths of 20 black children in Atlanta, her kids begged her not to. "People could see us and start harrassing us," one said with uncharacteristic caution.
When shy, sensitive Adrienne Miller, 15, now goes to sleep at night, she often dreams that someone is chasing her. She awakens in a cold sweat, crying. The deaths in Atlanta, she says, terrify her.
In these subtle ways are the events in Georgia reaching into the homes of Washington, where no such horror is occurring. Yet, as the out-pouring of sympathy, outrage and publicity about Atlanta has raised compassion and concern in D.C., it also has raised fears in children and their parents about the vulnerability of youth and what to do about it. Without Atlanta has altered people's behavior here in noticed and unnoticed ways.
Parents, teachers and children say they are being more cautious as a result of Atlanta. Child psychologists say they are finding changes in behavior: Youngersters want to play closer to home. They are more afraid to go out at night. They fear strangers, and they listen more intently to their parents' admonitions to be home on time.
Parents, on the other hand, are keeping closer tabs on their children and more often think the worst when their child is missing.
"It's terrifying to think that kids are having to live with this," says Phyllis DeLoatch, Adrienne's mother. "I've listened to the neighborhood kids . . . and I hear them talking about Atlanta a lot. My little nephew, who will soon be 7 years old, said he would like to makes a monster in the shape of a kid so that the monster could eat the person who was doing the killings." DeLoatch's observations are not isolated.
"For the past six weeks I have seen increasing anxiety among children, a growing suspicion of adults and authority, a sense of restlessness and a growing fear that something might happen to them," says Fred Phillips, a private pschologist who also works in a northwest mental health clinic. "These are signs that the murders are affecting children's emotional ability to handle fear."
At Paul Junior High School in Northwest Washington, students tie ribbons to a school yard tree every Monday to mourn the Atlanta deaths. Many students also pin black, green or red ribbons to their clothes. Such actions are thought to relieve fear, says Phillips, who has talked with many black children about Atlanta. The symbols of solidarity also may heighten fears, he says.
"My mother keeps telling me that when I go out at night, to think about the children in Atlanta so I can be careful," says Rodney General, 13 a student at Paul. "I feel real sorry about the kids being killed, and . . . it teaches me a lesson to stay away from strangers."
Moneque Chamberlain, one of Rodney's classmates, mow is afraid to leave home by herself. "A whole lot of crazy people might be out there," she says. "I call up one of my friends to go with me." Angela Thomas, 14, no longer lets her younger brother go to the neighborhood playground alone, and Gina Clark, 13, now glances out the window as her younger brothers and sisters play in the yard.
At several D.C. public schools, officials are reluctant to keep kids after school, saying that parents now often call when their children are only a few minutes late arriving home. Some adults -- even those who are not parents -- say they find themselves for the first time noticing young children milling on the streets.
"I heard reports," says the Rev. Ernest Gibson, executive director of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, "about a white priest wearing his collar who went into a community here in Washington, and as he approached a child, the child started screaming."
All of this in faraway Washington since Atlanta. Psychologist Pillips says there are actions parents can take to help children cope with fears generated by the killings.
"At PTA meetings, church gatherings, radio talk shows and in gatherings where I have been asked to speak, worried and concerned parents raise the Atlanta issues asking, how should they discuss the Atlanta murders with their children and what should they say?" Phillips says. "Around age 10, parents can discuss issues with children on the adult level, and they must say to children repeatedly that they will protect them. Children need to hear that.
"Parents need to show children that they are taking actions to protect them. If a child is afraid that he might be attacked at school, for example, speak to the principal and let the child know that you as a parent are taking action. Some parents are getting whistles for children, organizing neighborhood parent watches."
Parents should talk about Atlanta with their kids, Phillip says, because there is little chance they have not heard about the killings, and a good chance they have taken part in some events mourning their deaths.
"Publicity," says psychologist Phillips, "is a double-edged sword."