‘It practically destroyed him:’ For families of gun violence victims, trauma can last decades
Ashlynn Sparks, left, and Jamie Marie Kernop. (Photos courtesy April Curb and Misty Kernop)
Ashlynn Sparks was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was a Wednesday night in Lipscomb, just outside Birmingham, in 2016. Sparks, 18, was in a car with her boyfriend, when an individual approached them and started shooting, spraying the front windshield with bullets.
One bullet hit her hand, and another hit her head. Her boyfriend, who also got shot twice, quickly drove off with Sparks to the hospital before stopping at a gas station to call for emergency services. But she was pronounced brain dead the following morning at the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital.
Sparks’ mother, April Curb, 55, said in a phone interview on Monday that the pain never goes away. In the beginning, she didn’t get to sleep for several weeks. When she did, she would wake up with nightmares, screaming.
“I mean, there’s still things that trigger me,” Curb said. “Holidays are hard. A lot of milestones she missed.”
Since the beginning of 2023, there has been nearly 400 violent incidents in Alabama in which a gun was involved, according to data from the Gun Violence Archives, a non-profit organization that monitors gun violence.
The mass shooting at a Sweet 16 party in Dadeville, a town of about 3,000 residents left at least four people dead and 32 people injured. Many others will experience the trauma of being in that space, even without a gunshot wound.
Since the start of 2023, gun violence has killed 220 Alabamians and injured another 289. If the trend continues through the year, Alabama may see over 700 deaths from gun violence alone in 2023, and over 900 more people may be injured.
Alabama has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country. An analysis from Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization which advocates for gun control and against gun violence, ranked Alabama 34 out of 50 for gun law strength, which considers laws requiring secure gun storage or background checks. Lawmakers last year passed a permitless carry legislation, which now allows concealed carry in public without a permit.
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Guns and children
The rise in gun deaths among children has coincided with an increase in gun sales and ownership during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a 2023 analysis by of CDC mortality statistics by the Pew Research Center, a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan think tank focused on social issues and public opinion. The number of gun deaths among children under 18 years old increased by 50% in just two years, with 1,680 deaths reported in 2021, most of which were homicides or suicides.
In the last decade, 36 children have been killed in Alabama by someone with a gun. Nearly every one of these murders were committed by an adult. Another 115 children in the state were injured by a firearm.
Accidents also took a toll. In Alabama alone, 23 children have accidently injured themselves with a gun since 2013, an average of two children per year. Another 12 children injured another child with a gun. Five have been killed by another child with a gun during the same time.
Whether accidental or suicide, 17 deaths were reported from children handling a firearm in Alabama in the last 10 years, according to the Gun Violence Archives.
Daniel Marullo, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham, said that the prevalence of children showing up with injuries from guns have been following national trends. When he first started practicing at UAB about 25 years ago, he said he treated a lot of children dealing with trauma from car accidents or other physical abuse. But he said that more kids are coming to the hospital from gun injuries, especially in the last three years.
“We may go a rough stretch without having any kids in the hospital from gun violence, but we’re seeing it more and more,” he said. “So, it’s not unusual.”
First steps to recovery
Children deal with trauma much differently from adults, and the effects of facing these challenges early in life can have lasting effects into adulthood.
Marullo said that a lot of factors go into how a child or teenager responds to a traumatic event. Age, home environment and access to behavioral healthcare can greatly impact a child’s recovery to a traumatic event.
A child’s response to a single event, such as a school shooting, will be different than a child who lives in an unsafe neighborhood and may be exposed to gun violence more frequently. He said a child who lives in poverty and does not get proper nutrition – or who lives in a household where there’s abuse or neglect and not getting the nurturing – grow in a different way and have different health risks. They are at higher risk of having learning difficulties. These students may also develop issues with attention and concentration and have trouble with controlling behavior.
The trauma can affect a person for decades. Adults who had adverse childhood experiences are at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity and psychological disorders, Marullo said.
Marullo said that even children who have a single exposure to trauma are at risk for developing trauma-related issues. But those repeatedly exposed to violence are at much higher risk and may have more challenges in terms of recovery.
“If there’s anything that negatively impacts that, it can set those children on a different trajectory,” he said. “And that could have lifelong emotional, behavioral and medical consequences.”
For young children, such as infants to preschoolers, dealing with trauma is especially difficult because they don’t necessarily understand much at that stage in life, Marullo said. At that stage in life, adults play a big role in helping these young children deal with trauma by modeling behavior. When children are traumatized, parents are also traumatized.
He said that anytime there is trauma, whether it’s habitual gun violence or a mass shooting, there’s a ripple effect. It affects the person who’s injured and affects the family, as well as other kids at school.
But he said that children are looking at adults for how to respond and react. Marullo said that adults in a child’s life need to be mindful of what they want their children to learn.
“If we approach a trauma honestly – not that we hide our emotions, but we manage our emotions, versus flying off the handle too – what do you want your children to see?” he said. “How do you want them to respond? If we want them to learn how to handle trauma in an effective, healthy way, then we have to model that for them.”
Trauma can show up when parents struggle to remember what doctors said, Marullo said. They may only be able to take in so much information in the presence of distress, or may show more visible signs, such as signs of irritability, anger or lashing out.
“We spend a lot of time talking with families about their own experience, trying to normalize, give them some tools to kind of cope and manage that acute phase,” he said.
Course of healing
Misty Kernop, 48, lost her 17-year-old daughter in 2018. Her daughter, Jamie Marie, and her boyfriend were getting ready to walk to class at Bevill State Community College from her boyfriend’s house when two men walked into the house, shot her boyfriend, Stone Whitlow, and his friend, Jacob Collier.
Jamie tried to run past the shooters, but one of the shooters clotheslined her and shot her in the back of her head. She was the only one that died in that incident.
Kernop said that she “went off the deep end” after her daughter was killed.
“I started drinking very heavily and turned into a raging alcoholic for about a year and a half,” she said. “Until one day I just realized that I wasn’t doing myself, my daughter, my kids that are still here – none of us – any justice whatsoever.”
But she said that like Sparks brother, Jamie Marie’s siblings had a hard time healing from the trauma. Her oldest brother, who was 15 at the time, completely shut down after the incident and was very angry and scared of going out, she said.
Her youngest son, 11 years old at the time, wouldn’t leave Kernop’s side. She said that “he was like a fearful little toddler clinging to my side.”
The process after enduring such a traumatic event can be not only challenging, but lengthy as well.
Marullo said the first goal is getting the child stabilized and get them integrated back into society as quickly as possible, and with support when needed.
When returning to school, he said that it’s not uncommon for a child to go under a 504 plan, a program intended to protect students with disabilities from discrimination, and it allows the school to make some basic accommodations for the child.
“For example, a child with a gunshot wound, depending on where the wound is – say their leg was injured – maybe they need to leave class a few minutes early, so they don’t get jostled in the hallway,” Marullo said. “That’s that kind of thing. But you can also put in plans to help support them psychologically as well.”
Some kids, regardless of whether they meet full criteria for psychological disorder, might benefit from some brief therapy to help them work through the trauma and learn ways of coping and managing some of the issues they are feeling.
Some kids, he said, will develop a full-blown psychological disorder, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“Certainly, those kids would benefit from psychotherapy. They may even benefit from some medications – psychotropic medication – that would come from maybe a psychiatrist,” he said.
Marullo, who has practiced pediatric psychology for over 25 years, said that immediately following a violent gun incident might not be the right time for psychotherapy. He said that a lot of the energy will be spent on trying to make sense of the trauma. That may look like lashing out, but he said that is a normal reaction to trauma.
Once time has passed and the individual feels more calm, he said that it is the more appropriate time to introduce psychotherapy, and perhaps medication if they developed a disorder.
Curb said that Sparks’ four siblings all struggled after she died, but it was her 15-year-old brother who struggled the most. She said she had just begun homeschooling them at the time, and that was hard on everyone. She said that he was very anxious at the time, and it took him two to three years to finally leave the house without earphones in.
“He had a lot of anger issues. So, at one point, I didn’t know which way he was going to go,” she said. “He was angry. He was very angry. But he has a big heart.”
Curb said that he didn’t want to get counseling and resisted that until he became an adult, several years after Sparks died.
“I tried to get my son to do it, and he would not. He just started getting counseling – the Army has offered it to him, and he decided he was ready for counseling,” Curb said.
He has since gotten his GED and serves in the Army now and he now gets counseling, Curb said.
“It was really against the odds for him though,” she said. “It practically destroyed him for a while.”
As for Curb, she said she had access to professional counseling as well, but never chose to go that route.
“There’s a lot of good programs out there for counseling, but it just didn’t seem like that was a fit for me,” she said.
She said that no one could tell her what she was feeling or how to fix it, and that she had to fix it herself.
But she followed the court cases of the four people who were eventually charged in connection with her daughter’s death. During that time, Curb found comfort in another mother, Tricia Hyman Dunn, who’s daughter is survivor of gun violence, and who came to support her through the process. It lasted six years, with the last conviction in November 2022.
That support was integral in helping her heal, and she found comfort in passing that forward. She started the Ashlynn Sparks Movement, and she said that she tried to give back to the community, especially to causes that Sparks was passionate about, such as fundraising to support animal shelters and homeless veterans. She hasn’t done much advocacy since the COVID-19 pandemic, but she still tries to spend time with other mothers that have lost their children.
“And to deal with it, I just started giving back, I thought – maybe I can make a difference, maybe I can help save a kid, maybe I can help another mom, and that’s what I did with our foundation,” Curb said.
Kernop said her son has moved on from his sister’s death. He learned to play the guitar and said that Jamie Marie would have loved to her him play Johnny Cash, one of her favorite artists.
Jamie Marie’s brothers also didn’t want to go to counseling. Curb said that they resisted it they “did not want any part of it – none whatsoever.”
“That’s where it found the most support as far as somebody that truly understands and just knows what it’s like to lose part of you,” Kernop said.
The day her daughter died, Kernop said that her sister gave her Curb’s number, who had lost her daughter a few years before. She said that Curb was the only person she wanted to talk to at first because she knew exactly what she was feeling. She said she didn’t want anyone telling her “I’m sorry for your loss” or “she’s in a better place.”
That day, the only thing she remembers Curb saying was: “Hang on, Mama. It’s a hell of a ride.”
“A ride that I didn’t know if I could hang on to, and to hear that coming from another mother that had made it through that meant so much,” Kernop said.
“But to hear her tell me that, that’s one thing I needed to hear from a mom that knew how I was feeling that very moment,” she said. “That meant so much to me. Because it’s a pain that’s so deep that you can’t even fathom and I thought that I had known pain before in my life to some degree, but never did I know it like that.”
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This story was first published by the Alabama Reflector, part of the States Newsroom network of news bureaus with the Louisiana Illuminator. It’s supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alabama Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Brian Lyman for questions: [email protected]. Follow Alabama Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.
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