| The Columbus Dispatch
Editor's note: This is the third in a four-part series about lives lost amid a spike in deadly violence in Columbus and other cities in 2020.
Two-year-old Adalynn Murphy was sound asleep on the couch next to her older sister when gunshots rang out just after 3 a.m. on July 18 on the city’s West Side.
Two bullets pierced the front door, breaking its wrought iron. A third round struck the porch on Woodbury Avenue on the Hilltop. One of the bullets tore into Adalynn’s small body, barely missing her ligaments. There was no exit wound.
Adalynn is one of 48 children younger than 16 who were treated at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus for gunshot wounds through mid-September this year, according to hospital data. Like some of the other young shooting victims, she was hit when bullets tore into her home.
The number of victims this year who are children or teens has skyrocketed as the city’s shootings and homicides continue to rise. The historic spikes come amid the COVID-19 pandemic and growing demand for reform of police divisions across the country after fatal use-of-force cases.
From March 1 to July 31, Nationwide Children's treated 32 children for gunshot wounds, compared with 16 during the same time period in 2019.
Of those 32, most were Black children, with their numbers doubling from nine children shot in 2019 to 18 in 2020. That compares with five white children shot in 2019 during the same time period to nine this year. Children hit by a bullet who are classified as another minority went from two victims last year to five this year.
“Based on this information, minority children are twice as likely to be shot compared to white children,” said Dr. Jonathan Groner, medical director of both the Trauma Program and the Center for Pediatric Trauma Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Among the young victims this year:
- A 5-year-old girl lying in bed in a South Side home was shot in her back.
- A 9-year-old was shot in the back in Maloney Park in South Linden by someone who drove by firing a weapon.
- A 16-year-old girl was shot in her thigh when at least 56 rounds were fired at a home on the Northeast Side.
- A 13-year-old boy was shot in his arm while inside a home on the Northeast Side.
Some of the children who were victims of shootings were killed. Of those who survived, some have had multiple surgeries and face months of rehabilitation.
Authorities say that children who are shot tend to fall into two categories.
“One is direct interpersonal violence, which is teens shooting each other. And then the other is sort of the collateral damage. A bunch of people have a bunch of guns. They're either lying around the homes or kids find them,” Groner said. “People are shooting each other; bullets go through walls and pictures – we've had a couple of those.”
There has not been definitive research to show what the children growing up in 2020 might face as they mature and try to come to grips with the traumas of living through a pandemic, social unrest and violence – particularly for those who are witnessing it all firsthand.
“One of the difficulties is exposure to firearm violence typically doesn’t occur in isolation,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, executive director of the University of California-Davis' Violence Prevention Research Center.
“Exposure to gun violence comes with … exposure to a bad education and no opportunity for a good one, and awareness that other people do have that kind of opportunity. Multiply that thinking across nutrition and green space.
“I think the effects are much greater than even the most pessimistic among us think they are,” he said.
Columbus experiences historic surge in violence
Lives are lost and changed forever amid a spike in deadly violence in Columbus and other cities in 2020.
'It no longer shocks me'
The damage that a gunshot wound can do to a small, growing body is often difficult to repair.
“I can tell you that, you know, kids who get shot in the head, generally die. Kids with abdominal wounds can need a lot of surgery,” Groner said.
The trauma ripples through a family and a community.
Around 2 a.m. on July 24, Elijah Copley, 14, was shot in his head while riding a scooter in Franklinton with a friend. He died a few hours later.
Though it had been years since Elijah was a student at Southwood Elementary School, the staff there collected $525 to contribute toward funeral expenses.
Teacher Robin Thalgott remembers Elijah in her class.
“During the time I had him, he was a bright boy," Thalgott said. "He did best when he was challenged and busy, like most 8-year-old boys.”
Thalgott has lost a handful of former students during her 20 years of teaching on the South Side. She's seen even more students who have lost a parent to gun violence.
“The sad thing is it no longer shocks me," Thalgott said. "And that’s what is scary. How have we let this get to the point where it is no longer shocking?”
Last summer, a child was shot on the East Side. He was hospitalized at Nationwide for about a year for traumatic wounds to his gastrointestinal tract. The child and his family left the city because they no longer felt safe in Columbus.
“These are kids who will spend a lot of time in the hospital, will have their lives changed forever. They will have post-traumatic stress,” Groner said. “Ultimately, firearm trauma is a disease of poverty.”
Of the children treated at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, 44% were shot in their own homes; 23% were shot at another home; and 21% were shot at a public location such as on a street, in a store or at a park, Groner said. (The location of the remaining 12% were marked as "unknown.")
Though the hospital's trauma center treats children from across Ohio, including from rural areas, most patients come from ZIP codes on Columbus' West Side, including the Hilltop; the Southern Orchards area on the South Side that includes Driving Park; and the Northeast Side, including Linden.
Doctors say the injuries are getting worse and more traumatic.
“We've seen a lot of large-caliber wounds, and I don't know if that reflects what’s on the streets. We definitely see that,” Groner said. “These are not kids getting shot with BB guns and .22-caliber (guns). These are kids getting shot with really heavy-duty stuff. We’ve had a couple of deaths.”
'The weaponry is just off the charts'
There is no shortage of high-powered weapons that make their way into inner-city neighborhoods across the country.
As of Aug. 31, officers turned in 1,737 guns. For the same time period in 2019, the total was 1,794. Gun-related arrests are down when compared with 2019, data shows. In 2019, for the entire year, there were 817 gun-related arrests in Columbus. As of Sept. 10, there had been 499 gun-related arrests in 2020.
“The weaponry is just off the charts,” said Lance Williams, assistant director of Northeastern Illinois University’s Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago.
“You have Dracos, and you have AKs, MACs and these clips. You have got a gun spitting out 30 high-power shells in seconds.”
It’s no surprise that there is collateral damage from bullets flying from extended clips or children getting wounded in households where members are armed.
And when opposing groups are warring in neighborhoods, it goes back and forth.
“So, you see that a lot – where a group of guys will come and they'll just shoot up the neighborhood,” Williams said. “They now have easy access to high-powered weaponry, with automatic weapons. Bullets are flying all over the place into people's houses. That's how innocent people get killed.”
Nationwide Children's Hospital data show that of the children treated at the trauma center in 2020, 38% were listed as victims in unintentional or accidental shootings and 62% were listed as assault victims. There were no self-inflicted cases.
'We need to get out'
The girls had fallen asleep on the couch while watching TV. Kayla Murphy, Adalynn’s mother, who is enrolled in evening classes to earn a nursing degree, had been up late studying after work.
“I just let them sleep there and we were all sleeping when it happened,” she said.
It was Adalynn’s cries that woke her father, Xavier, and then Kayla. Initially, they didn’t realize the 2-year-old had been shot.
“I saw the blood, but at the time, I didn't think there was a gunshot wound," her mother said. "Then I started hearing glass from the door dropping, shattering.”
Before the Murphys could call 911, police officers showed up because of the ShotSpotter alert. The Shotspotter system uses about 20 acoustic sensors per square mile that are strategically placed to notify police of gunfire.
“The police were coming in, seeing if we were OK," Murphy said. "It's like they arrived instantly.”
When paramedics examined Adalynn, they found the gunshot wound. Kayla Murphy, still in her pajamas, climbed into the ambulance with her daughter for the ride to Nationwide Children’s Hospital. The bullet was still lodged in Adalynn’s left leg, and surgeons removed the bullet a few days later.
As Dispatch reporters went to neighborhoods where shootings had occurred during the summer, they sometimes found empty houses and piles of furniture at the curb awaiting bulk pickup. In some cases at those shooting locations, shattered glass was still awaiting clean up and repair.
One thing is clear: People often pack up and leave after a shooting.
With any sense of safety ripped from them, people often flee their homes, said Williams, of Northeastern Illinois University.
“This is where you see a massive depopulation of African Americans from these traditional African American communities in urban spaces," said Williams. "Because the violence is so intense, people are just fleeing ... because of hopelessness, helplessness and despair.”
The Murphys have since left the house on Woodbury. They’re staying with family members in another part of the city and hope to save money to buy a home.
“You just never think it will happen to you,” said Kayla Murphy, whose father is a deputy in Franklin County. The shooting is the first time in her life she has ever had to deal with an act of violence.
“I've been seeing a counselor, trying to deal with being uprooted from your life. Your life is going one way and then something just intersects so quickly and you're just caught off-guard. So, it's just kind of picking up the pieces and trying to move forward.”
'Great deal of stress on families'
Black on black crime often is mentioned as a factor in gun violence in urban areas, but Williams says it's misleading to say Black people are to blame for violence against other Black people.
“Really, the term 'Black on Black violence' is a misnomer, because people kill those who are closest to them," Williams noted. "So, whites kill whites, Blacks kill Blacks, Asians kill Asians and Latinos kill Latinos, essentially."
Though there is a disproportionate number of killings and shootings among African Americans, especially in cities, it can be traced back to failed social policy that in many cases goes back decades.
“What that has done is that has undermined and damaged the social safety nets, in the poorest of poor communities, right? And so, when you damage that safety net at the community level, then that creates a great deal of stress on families that live in that neighborhood. And when the families are under duress and stress, then guess what?” Williams said. “That’s where you find the escalated levels of violence among the young people who are just victims of living in families who are victims of poor public policy.”
The policies have “a reverberating effect that impacts the people that are the most vulnerable and contributes to the violence that then we call Black-on-Black violence,” he said.
For 2-year-old Adalynn, the bullet that pierced her leg made a “boo-boo.” When she sees the pictures taken of her when she was in the hospital, she says, “That’s me,” her mother said.
Adalynn’s 10-year-old sister, who was beside her on the sofa that night, has had feelings of guilt about the shooting.
“She felt at first a little bit of guilt because she couldn't protect her and she was right there,” Murphy said. “I let her know that wasn't her fault. And this happened and we don't know why. And probably won't know why. The police don't really have anything to go on.”
Dispatch reporter Bethany Bruner contributed to this report.
About the series
The Dispatch examines the sudden increase in violent crime in Columbus and across the nation.
Sunday: A 'structural break'
Monday: Lives shattered
Tuesday: The youngest victims
Wednesday: Finding answers