Ashake Banks celebrated her 40th birthday last month not with a cake or a party but with a march against youth gun violence.
It’s been more than a year since Banks’ 7-year-old daughter, Heaven Sutton, was shot and killed as she helped Banks sell candy near their home in Austin.
Prosecutors say the killing stemmed from a quarrel between the Mafia Insane Vice Lords and the Four Corner Hustlers gangs. Alleged Hustler Jerrell Dorsey, 27, has been charged with murder.
Banks said a part of her died when Sutton was killed on June 27, 2012.
“I cry all day. I can’t sleep,” Banks said. “[Gang members] turned me into a monster. They broke my heart. They stole my baby's life. … They’re not supposed to take our kids' life.”
It’s been a particularly challenging summer for youth gun violence. While homicides are down 20 percent year-to-date compared with 2012, and shootings are down 22 percent through August, there have been a string of child shootings. Victims of homicides and shootings tend to be in their late teens or 20s, according to RedEye data.
Twelve children who were 12 years old or younger were shot in Chicago between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to Tribune data. Two of these shootings were fatal. Both of the victims, one boy and one girl, were 5 years old.
Earlier this year, Jonylah Watkins—a 6-month-old shot to death in her father’s arms as they sat in a car—became the face of Chicago violence.
Prosecutors say the girl was accidentally shot in retaliation for the theft of a video game console. Koman Willis, 33, has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery in the death.
Loyola University criminologist Arthur Lurigio said most of these cases are accidental shootings, so it’s not accurate to classify the recent rash of child shootings as a trend.
Lurigio said many shooters are inexperienced with guns and tend to shoot at their targets from a far distance, which increases the possibility of hitting innocent bystanders on the street and sidewalk.
“These kind of shootings are more likely to take place in warmer weather. All those factors come into play,” Lurigio said.
But that provides little solace for family members of homicide victims like Banks who are having trouble coping with their loss.
Since her daughter’s death, Banks said she has contemplated suicide. She has gained weight. Her hair has fallen out. She describes herself as reckless.
She said when she meets with other parents of victims of violence, she “puts on a clown face” to stay strong, but inside, she’s depressed.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham said he is “distraught and outraged” about the number of children who have been shot in Chicago this year.
Pfleger said it can be especially hard counseling family members of young victims because “you can't make sense out of something as evil as the killing of babies.” He encourages families not to lose faith.
“The losing of a child is absolutely traumatizing. In many cases, the age adds an additional trauma to it,” Pfleger said. "I think it's harder as a society to deal with a 7-year-old’s death than that of a 17-year-old."
In Chicago, homicide victims tend to be in their late teens or 20s, shot to death on the South Side or West Side, according to RedEye data.
Nine children younger than 13 have been killed in homicides this year, about 3 percent of the year’s homicide toll.
In 2012, nine children younger than 13 were killed in homicides, mostly from child abuse. And then there was Heaven.
Banks said it took her months before she could even visit her daughter in the cemetery. She can recall with great detail the final day of Heaven’s life, from the new braids in her hair after a trip to the mall to her daughter’s blood on her orange skirt as she turned her over to see the bullet wound in her back.
“It's just so hard,” Banks said. “You pray for the safety for the kids of God.”
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