Orphaned by gun violence: Two kids, two shootings, two parents gone
Every day in America, more than 40 children lose a parent to shootings, new Post data reveals. Kaleigh and Kavon Washington lost both.
She knew that the pops outside were gunshots because, by age 7, Kaleigh Washington had heard them many times before. She didn’t worry at first. Kaleigh was inside a townhouse, away from windows, the kind of place she’d been taught to take refuge since she was little, even before the shooting that killed her father when she was 5. Then came more pops, and she remembered.
“Oh no,” Kaleigh recalled thinking. “My mom is out there.”
The second-grader couldn’t see anything from her friend’s upper floor in Douglass Homes, a public housing complex in East Baltimore, so she hurried downstairs. The adults gathering by the front door wouldn’t let her pass, but Kaleigh spotted the flickering red lights of an ambulance.
“That’s her mommy,” she heard someone say, and Kaleigh began to cry.
It was just before 4 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2020, and the worst stretch of gun violence in decades had just begun. By the end of the year, more than 19,000 people would be killed in gun homicides, including 1,376 children, a record-smashing figure that still fails to capture the scope of the epidemic’s devastation on the youngest and most vulnerable Americans.
Every year, hundreds of them are struck by stray rounds or endure school shootings or shoot themselves accidentally or on purpose. But there is another uncounted, often invisible group suffering through this crisis: the kids who lose parents to it.
Across 20 cities that were the site of nearly a quarter of the nation’s gun homicides in 2020, more than 3,600 children lost their mother or father in a shooting, according to an exclusive analysis by The Washington Post.
Note: In a limited number of cases, the markers represent the date of the shooting rather than the date the victim died.
This data was compiled from Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Mo., Los Angeles, Louisville, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Tulsa and Washington. Click here to learn more about the reporting of the data.
If the trends identified in those communities remained consistent across the country, it would mean that the parents of more than 15,000 children in America were gunned down that year — or, on average, at least 41 every day.
And that doesn’t include the thousands of parents — the precise number is impossible to track — who shot themselves.
By that unseasonably mild afternoon in Baltimore, Kaleigh and her older brother, 11-year-old Kavon, already knew what it felt like to be robbed of a parent. Their dad, Kavon Washington Sr., had been shot on the side of the road while walking to work in early August 2017. He was 32.
It left his preschool daughter sad and confused, but certain that her dad, the man who bought her a bag of chips whenever she wanted one, had gone to heaven. His son and namesake, Kavon Jr., felt angry at first, but in time, as he watched his family mourn friends and neighbors being killed, his fury gave way to a lingering numbness.
So, when Kavon noticed an Instagram post about another shooting at Douglass, he didn’t think much of it. Then his phone rang.
“You know your mother just got killed?” his cousin said.
He’d learn that wasn’t true. At the scene, Jackie Burley was still breathing. Her girlfriend, Jameta Rooths, rushed to the courtyard where the woman she’d dated for six years lay sprawled on the ground.
By the time Jameta found Kaleigh, the girl was hyperventilating. She’d heard someone say that her mother had been shot in the head.
“Breathe,” Jameta told her.
In the lobby at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Kaleigh imagined what would change after her mom woke up. She didn’t like going to Douglass, a site of unrelenting gun violence.
“When she get out of the hospital, she can’t be down there no more,” Jameta recalled Kaleigh telling her over and over.
Other family members soon arrived, including Kavon. Not long after, doctors delivered the news: Jackie wasn’t going to make it.
Kaleigh wept. Kavon tried not to. The family wouldn’t let him see his mom in person, but a relative FaceTimed him from the room. Through his cellphone, he stared at his mother, her eyes swollen shut and face covered with tubes.
Afterward, he sat next to his great-grandmother, Jacqueline White.
“Grandma, how my mother gonna be buried?” Kavon asked.
Funerals and caskets were expensive, the fifth-grader knew. He wanted her body to rest somewhere nice, near his father’s grave.
Jacqueline told him not to fret. The family would take care of it, she assured him, but she still sensed his anxiety. He had another question.
Where would he and his sister stay, Kavon asked, because he knew the two of them no longer had a parent to go home to. They were orphans now.
For most kids whose parents are shot to death, their existence is noted only, if at all, in brief news articles about the crimes: “mother of two,” “father of three.” The stories seldom convey how the damage done to the children left behind can haunt them for decades as they grow up in a society that doesn’t recognize their trauma.
And those children are everywhere.
Kavon and Kaleigh’s mom was killed on the same day that fathers in Houston, Chicago and Kansas City, Mo., were also killed. Across the 20 cities that The Post reviewed in its analysis, at least 43 children would lose a parent to gun violence by the end of that week.
Two in Charlotte. Three in Memphis. Four in Cleveland. Five in St. Louis.
Children who lost a parent to gun violence the week of Feb. 23, 2020
In Kansas City, three of Devon Nolan’s four children were in his car when a woman shot the 34-year-old standing just outside of it, investigators allege. His attacker — the mother of two of Nolan’s kids — drove away, and when police reached his car, they heard the children inside screaming.
In Chicago, Stephanie Brooks, 27, was shot by a man trying to break into an apartment. Brooks was devoted to her kids, capturing their three young lives in dozens of Facebook posts: a video singing with her preschool-aged daughter, whose shirt read, “Be Strong Be Bold Be Brave”; another of her tottering baby boy, still in diapers, taking nine unsteady steps before plopping to the floor; a trio of photos of her beaming baby girl, along with the caption, “no better feeling then wake ... up to these smiles.”
In Philadelphia, after Brent Swearingen was killed, his 14-year-old son, Nasir, grew so afraid of being shot himself that he stopped riding the bus or shopping at the corner store, said his aunt, Tajia Swearingen. His sister, Bailey, now 7, still cries about her dad’s death, still asks why anyone would hurt him. Sometimes, she hugs his urn or gently places drawings and My Little Pony toys on top of it.
“Daddy,” she’ll say, “look.”
In Baltimore, Jackie was the first of two mothers gunned down that week. The other one, Melissa Brown, 31, left behind a 3-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl. Brown’s death splintered the family, said her grandmother, Barbara Anderson. The kids’ father is in prison, she said, and the children now live apart. The girl has dealt with depression, but Anderson worries even more about the boy. She wonders for how long he’ll remember his mother.
Most of those kids won’t recover without help, trauma experts say, but providing it requires the country to acknowledge that children who lose parents to gun violence are also victims of it.
Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, who has studied the fallout from this epidemic for a decade, argues that society hasn’t accepted that truth at least in part because of the skin color of those most affected.
Black people made up just 30 percent of the residents of the 20 cities The Post analyzed. But of the children in those cities whose parents were killed in gun homicides, 82 percent were Black.
Smith Lee and other researchers point to the disparity between how the nation responds to mass shootings at mostly White suburban schools and the chronic gun violence in marginalized neighborhoods that devastates children of color.
“There’s this idea that we’re desensitized to violence,” she said of African Americans. “That because it happens so much, we’re used to it.”
But that’s not true at all. For one study, she interviewed 40 young Black men in Baltimore about how incessant gun violence had derailed their lives. Combined, they had lost 119 friends, relatives, siblings and parents to homicide. All of them exhibited at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 1 in 5 experienced all four.
Such losses can have an even more calamitous effect on kids, but Smith Lee questions describing their affliction as post-traumatic stress when, for so many Black children, there is no “post.” The fear of the next shooting never subsides, often depriving them of the chance to process their loved one’s death.
“Grief is a luxury,” said Smith Lee, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “And it’s too often denied to Black Americans, and it’s too often denied to homicide survivors.”
In Baltimore, Kavon had been trying to manage the consequences of loss for nearly three years by the time he faced his mother’s glossy, ivory-colored casket. He didn’t remember much about his father’s funeral, but Kavon had never forgotten seeing his distorted face. He barely recognized the man in the box, but now, peering at his mother, she looked just like the woman who made him his favorite mac and cheese and tattooed his initials on her neck and called him her “heart outside my chest.”
Kaleigh poured her own grief into a song she’d written two days earlier about their mother’s death. She performed it only once, for Vernel Rogers, the aunt who’d taken her in and recorded her niece singing a cappella on the floor.
“When we heard the sound, everybody said, ‘No, not her.’ And I thought about mommy.”
“We went to the hospital, and the nurse said she was okay. But then there was too much, so they couldn’t help it.”
“Why’d you have to leave so fast? Why’d you have to go? Why’d you have to leave so soon? I was scared to let you go.”
Kaleigh squinted her eyes and stroked her chin, mulling over a question that she had asked herself hundreds of times since writing a version of it into the song two years earlier.
Why had someone killed her mother?
She and her brother never discussed it. The siblings were split up after the shooting, each moving in with family members who barely had enough room for them.
Kavon was living with his paternal grandmother, Ronnie Milburn, in a deteriorating rowhouse a mile and a half northeast of Douglass. He shared a bed with his 21-year-old uncle in a room where they lined the window’s edge with brown packing tape to keep the cold from seeping in.
Jackie’s sister, Vernel, was caring for Kaleigh in her two-bedroom apartment in a Baltimore suburb. They shared the space with Vernel’s daughter and the 26-year-old’s premature infant, who required oxygen. Kaleigh had her own bedroom but seldom spent her nights in it because of nightmares about her mother being murdered and the perpetual fear that, if she slept apart from Vernel, Kaleigh would lose her, too.
Now she was sitting in their living room, on the bed that doubled as a couch, and she’d come to the same answer about the cause of her mother’s death that she always did.
“Because I left,” she said.
Kaleigh had been with Jackie that afternoon at Douglass but decided to visit a family friend just minutes before the shooting. The girl theorized that if whoever killed Jackie had seen a child with her, he wouldn’t have pulled the trigger.
“Stop. Stop it,” said Vernel, sitting on the other side of the bed. “I told you that’s not why it happened.”
“Then why did it happen?” Kaleigh asked.
“It is a blessing that you left,” Vernel told her, avoiding Kaleigh’s question because she didn’t know the answer. “You would have seen that happen to your mother. How you think you would feel if you had seen it, right there?”
Kaleigh looked unconvinced, her eyes drifting across the room.
All around her were reminders. A clock adorned with a collage of Jackie’s photos. A glass crystal with a 3D image of Jackie holding Kaleigh as a baby. A life-sized cardboard cutout of Jackie posing with her lips pursed, just the way her daughter does.
“If I just think about it, I can, like, see it,” Kaleigh told her aunt. “It’s like they’re shooting her leg, but she’s trying to, like, run away.”
Vernel didn’t respond. She knew her niece had heard detectives discuss the case.
Baltimore police hadn’t found either of her parents’ killers, magnifying her fear that she could also lose Kavon, who still hung out at Douglass.
“I always wonder sometimes, still, why do he choose to go down there?” she said. “Like, do he want to get hurt?”
Kaleigh shook her head. She missed him.
Their parents had each served stints behind bars on drug charges. Kavon Sr. was in prison when Kaleigh was born, and he was dead before she started first grade, but both she and her brother knew he loved them.
They liked to tag along when he sold water bottles and baseball caps around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and on birthdays, he took them roller skating. He called them “Mama” and “Baby K.”
Jackie began dating Jameta soon after Kaleigh’s birth, and her girlfriend became a second parent to the kids, especially in the wake of their dad’s killing. When Kavon started picking fights at school, Jameta helped him work through it, explaining that he couldn’t take his anger out on other people.
For a time, the four of them felt like a family. Jameta, an accounting associate, paid most of the bills while Jackie, who worked in fast food, handled the chores and managed homework. The couple took the kids to playgrounds and water parks and, at home, they played “Would you rather?” and “Never have I ever,” munching on chocolate candies late into the night.
But Kaleigh knew, too, that her world wasn’t always safe. The family never lived in Douglass, where Jackie and Jameta had grown up, but they often visited. Kaleigh saw men with guns and ducked into strangers’ homes when shootings started, picked up bullets in the grass and passed by dried blood on the pavement.
Two of her mom’s friends, guys who had bought her pizza and snacks, were killed.
Then her mom was gone, too.
One day after her death, a relative called Vernel to say that Kavon, still 11, had gone down to the public housing complex, searching for the person who killed his mother.
Kavon later claimed he didn’t do it, but Jacqueline scolded him anyway.
“You could have got hurt,” she said.
Kaleigh thought about that all the time. Her brother, she knew, was smart. A husky kid with a baby face, he had inherited his father’s wry wit and his mother’s quiet charm. He made good grades, especially in math, and seldom got in serious trouble at school anymore, but he still woke up angry some days, for reasons he couldn’t explain.
“Mad-at-the-world-type stuff,” was how he put it.
Kaleigh wished she could see him more. She started superimposing the two of them into photos of her parents, pretending they were all together again. Sometimes, the siblings played “Fortnite” with each other online, but he preferred Call of Duty and Madden, games she didn’t own.
She liked rewatching the YouTube video her dad posted of her fourth birthday party, when she forgot how old she was and Kavon put his arm around her shoulder and whispered it into her ear.
In her phone, he appeared as “One And only Big Bro.” She liked to check on him.
“Hey u ok I miss u,” she texted last April.
“I miss you more,” he responded, with three pink hearts.
“I’m bout to go to school but I just wanted to hi,” she wrote one morning.
The next month, she sent him a joke about ordering an extra tooth on Amazon, and that made him laugh.
“Hey brother,” she texted in mid-January, but that time, he didn’t respond.
One week later, Kavon was back near Douglass, waiting for his egg roll order outside a nearby Chinese restaurant. Suddenly, someone started shooting. Kavon turned to flee but tripped, slamming into the sidewalk. On the ground, the middle-schooler heard bullets zip by his head. He stood and ran, scrambling to a relative’s house a few blocks away.
He rushed through the front door and stripped off his pants and hoodie, searching his body for blood.
“Ma!” he screamed for his grandmother.
She and his cousins tried to calm him down, to assure him that he hadn’t been shot, but the panic would not relent. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t breathe.
Kaleigh, just home from school, slumped into an office chair in her aunt’s cluttered living room, a space — like every space in their home — that doubled as storage. Dozens of boxes had been stacked against the walls for months, waiting for Vernel to find a bigger home they could afford.
Now, on the bed, her cousin was trying to coax her infant to sleep, and a “CoComelon” song was playing on the TV. Kaleigh, her backpack still strapped to her shoulders, stared at the screen.
“My daddy is the best, the best there ever was. My daddy is the best, and I love him just because,” the smiling cartoon baby crooned. “He tells me silly stories and tucks me in at night. He helps me not to be afraid when he turns out the light.”
Kaleigh watched in silence, swaying the swivel chair beneath a sign on that wall that read “Home Sweet Home.”
Just then, Vernel walked in.
“Miss Heather canceled,” she told her niece.
“Your therapy for the day.”
“Yay,” Kaleigh said, before turning sarcastic. “I mean, oh, that’s so sad.”
Vernel was sad. She thought it would have been an important session, Kaleigh’s last before the second anniversary of her mom’s death. She and the therapist had struggled to connect during their virtual calls, though. The woman seldom asked about her mom.
“Or my dad,” Kaleigh said. “Everyone forgets about my dad.”
She had started therapy within days of Jackie’s killing because her aunt insisted on it. When Vernel learned that they could get free support through the Family Bereavement Center, a department within the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, she signed Kaleigh up.
That’s how the girl met Yuvelqui “Yuvi” Rattigan, a licensed clinical social worker hired by the city, with funding from a state grant, to counsel children who had lost loved ones to homicide.
It hadn’t been so easy to find patients when Rattigan took the job. Though Baltimore was home to hundreds of children who needed treatment, many adults didn’t know how to seek it for them or were reluctant to. They had lots of reasons, Rattigan found: a persisting stigma about mental health care in the Black community, a dearth of Black counselors and, in many cases, a history of bad experiences with therapy.
Rattigan realized how few professionals, in Baltimore or elsewhere, had been trained to treat children enduring this complicated blend of trauma and grief, fear and anxiety. So, to earn people’s trust, she started attending community events.
Over the four years that followed, Rattigan would counsel more than 50 children whose parents had been shot to death, and the one symptom they all had in common, she learned, was hypervigilance. The condition, common among combat veterans, makes kids anticipate danger even when it doesn’t exist.
Few schools or mental health systems are equipped to help these children, said author and psychiatrist Bruce Perry, who noted that they suffer “smoldering pain, unresolved traumatic impact that, later in their lives, may manifest in ways that will be misunderstood and misdiagnosed, leading to more problems.”
To most people, Kaleigh’s distress wasn’t obvious. She smiled often, and when she did, her cheeks swelled like plums. She was both contemplative, often called an “old soul” by family, and vivacious, never far away from breaking into another TikTok dance.
But doctors saw what simmered beneath, diagnosing her with ADHD and PTSD, and prescribing her anti-anxiety medication to help her sleep.
Rattigan also worked with her on the nightmares, using puppets to help Kaleigh open up. In their virtual sessions, Rattigan would slide her hand into a figurine in an orange dress named Susie, and Kaleigh would talk through a Disney character, usually Minnie Mouse.
In time, Kaleigh learned to alter her dreams’ endings, or at least how she perceived them. When the man pointed the gun at her or her mom or her brother or her aunt, she imagined him firing bubblegum instead of bullets.
Kaleigh also started recording her feelings in a journal.
“I miss my mom,” she printed on one page in bright yellow marker.
“God try His best to help his kids,” she wrote on the first anniversary of Jackie’s death.
“I wish I ca be with my brother.”
“dont be scared.”
She made steady progress and the bad dreams dissipated, but, eventually, Rattigan moved into private practice and the grant that funded her specialized position at the Family Bereavement Center expired. Kaleigh hasn’t connected with anyone in the same way since.
Kavon tried therapy a couple times before he quit. Later, Ronnie signed him up for Big Brothers Big Sisters, but then he got sick with covid-19 and that ended, too.
He almost never talked about his parents, and he tried not to think about them too much, either. He couldn’t bring his mom and dad back, and though he suspected lots of people knew who killed them, he understood why they were too afraid to tell police.
“That’s getting yourself in a position you don’t want to be in,” the seventh-grader said.
Kavon missed his parents most when he did something that would have made them proud. He wished he could have shown them the four A’s on last semester’s report card.
But even those thoughts he tried to push away. Kavon didn’t see the point of fixating on the past or the future. When a mentor at his middle school asked him where he saw himself in five years, he refused to answer.
“Everybody don’t make it to the next five years,” he explained later. “Where I want to see myself in five years is alive.”
It was Feb. 23, the second anniversary of what Kaleigh called her mother’s “death date,” and she was nervous. She suspected Kavon might not show up to the family remembrance later that day.
“He better,” she said, looking down at her phone, waiting for him to text back. “Or else I will come to his house and I will make him come.”
Kaleigh had been ready for a while, dressed in a rainbow-colored shirt, socks and a bow in her braids that Jameta had done for her over the weekend. Vernel soon emerged from her bedroom in matching rainbow garb, and a half-hour later, she and Kaleigh parked outside her great-grandmother’s row house in a neighborhood just north of downtown Baltimore.
Kaleigh stepped out of the SUV, its windows adorned with white butterflies in memory of her mother. She scanned the block, looking for anything unusual.
“This is dangerous over here,” she said. “This one time I was at the playground, and they was shooting. Down the street.”
She pointed east, toward a bend in the road.
“Let’s just act like this is a good place,” she told herself, smiling at Jacqueline, who had volunteered to host.
They all exchanged hugs before Kaleigh called Kavon.
“Are you coming?” she asked.
He said he was waiting for a ride.
A half-hour later, Kavon arrived, joining a dozen family members and friends in a circle beneath a bright blue sky.
He slipped a gray gaiter over his nose and mouth and pulled a black hoodie low over his head, leaving only his eyes uncovered. That morning, he had shared a photo on Instagram of his mom’s grave above the caption “2YEARS” and a broken heart emoji.
Now, as a woman prayed for the family to find peace, he put his arm around Kaleigh’s shoulder and leaned down, pulling her cheek against his.
The adults shared their favorite memories about Jackie. Then it was the kids’ turn.
“Kavon, go ahead,” Ronnie told him.
“I don’t want to,” he replied, turning to his sister. “You can go first.”
“This one time,” Kaleigh began, remembering when Jackie and Jameta took her and Kavon to see Christmas lights and meet Santa Claus. It meant a lot to her.
“Kavon, are you going to talk?” Vernel asked.
He shook his head.
Vernel asked for a moment of silence, and Kaleigh, who’d brought a battery-powered candle, clicked on the light. Kavon raised his wick, too, but the wind extinguished the flame.
Afterward, Kavon sat on the front porch with his great-grandmother while Kaleigh played tag with a neighbor.
He picked his sister’s phone up from a table and looked at it.
“Kaleigh!” he shouted, and she hurried up the steps.
“Give me my phone!” she yelled, laughing and reaching for it as he held her back.
“Grandma, she got a boyfriend!” he said.
“That’s just a little infatuation,” Jacqueline said, unconcerned.
“And she got a heart on his name,” he said. “I don’t play that.”
When it was time to leave, Kaleigh hugged relatives goodbye, then approached Kavon. He wrapped his sister in both arms, closing his eyes and squeezing her into his chest.
Kaleigh didn’t know when they’d see each other again. She was going to Jameta’s that weekend, and she told him he should come, too.
“I’m gonna,” he said, and that made her happy.
She walked outside, holding Vernel’s hand to cross the street. Kaleigh got into the back of the SUV and shut the door. Through the windows covered in butterflies, she looked back at her brother, watching as he jogged east down the sidewalk, toward the bend, and disappeared from view.
Stephany Matat, Sarah Welch, Sarah Salem, Razzan Nakhlawi and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
The original graphic showing the number of children who lost a parent to gun violence the week of Feb. 23, 2020, relied on a less precise methodology. The graphic has been updated.