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The other victims: What happens to the children of killers?

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BY JASON PUHR, WWMT

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (CIRCA via WWMT) — Tragedies come with a ripple effect, particularly when a high-profile killing shakes a community and shocks the world.

Behind the scenes of many of these cases, there are silent victims, people directly affected who often get no sympathy or compassion.

In the case of a killer, their children often fall in this category.

The Southwest Michigan Children's Trauma Assessment Center helps children of killers and thousands of others who experience intense trauma. The center's director, Jim Henry, says the staff has worked with at least 10 local children in the past 18 months whose parent killed a spouse or someone else.

He estimated that 90 percent of the time a child loses a parent for any reason, the child blames him/herself.

"There's this experience that I should have done something and that it's my fault," Henry said. "The other part of that is, it happened because something is wrong with me. If I were different, then this wouldn't have happened."

Henry said the younger the trauma occurs, the more damage it can cause.

"The brain is developing. The sense of self is developing very young, and so that then affects later development," Henry said.

Henry says negative thoughts wire themselves in a child's brain, impacting the child's perceptions of the world and of self. This impacts relationships and how the children react to situations. For example, an outburst in school or in public is a reflection of their experiences.

"There's this experience that I should have done something and that it's my fault. The other part of that is, it happened because something is wrong with me. If I were different, then this wouldn't have happened."
Jim Henry, Southwest Michigan Children's Trauma Assessment Center director

"One is the body tenses up. Two is the heart rate continues. Three is when you've been chronically exposed to trauma, what happens is the brain releases adrenaline and cortisol even when there's not danger," Henry said. "Your brain is secreting those chemicals that normally are temporary. They're being released even when there's not danger because their perception is danger is everywhere."

Henry says people think children of killers or children who experienced trauma have a mental health issue, but that's not the problem. He argues that they've suffered a physiological impact that can be helped.

So far, Henry and his co-workers have seen more than 4,600 children at the Southwest Michigan Children's Trauma Assessment Center. He's also done more work around the state and in Colorado.

The center's tests look at intelligence, language, motor functions and visual processing. The goal is simply to help the children, but they need to know the damage first.

"The beginning of healing therapeutically is to find someone that can understand what it's like to be you," Henry said. "We often will say to a kid, 'Teach us what it's like to be you.' You're the expert on you. We need you to help us to let other people know what it's like, because too often adults think they know, but they don't."

Henry says children need three things in order to heal from chronic trauma:

  1. A positive, nurturing relationship with an adult
  2. The experience of being successful
  3. Knowledge of what calms and soothes them

For more information or to refer someone, a list of resources is available on the trauma center's contact page.

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