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Connecting with Those Who Care to Report on Violence

Connecting with Those Who Care to Report on Violence

Picture of Kathryn Canavan

I couldn't help thinking about the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon as I reported my series on children and violence in Wilmington, Delaware. That's the game where people try to connect any person to actor Kevin Bacon via a handful of people who've worked with him. In this case, though, the connections came about among those who were deeply concerned about Wilmington, Delaware's epidemic of violence, which took 19 lives last year and left 11 injured every month.  

My series, which ran on Delaware First.org, focused on how violence is damaging the brains and futures of young children in Wilmington, and I was stunned by the number of Wilmington officials and residents who were unusually frank about the problem – Attorney General Joseph R. Biden III, Mayor Jim Baker, parents of victims and perpetrators. I was also taken aback by the generosity of city and state employees who want a solution to the violence – from statisticians to social workers. In the end, they are the silent heroes behind my story.

When I couldn't find a good police contact to get the vivid facts, I turned to the city fire chief, with whom I volunteer on a Scouting committee. He turned me on to a police lieutenant. She introduced me to a detective who delineated how much drug dealers usually pay children to serve as drug mules. She also introduced me to a social worker who told me the story of one of her first cases:  a young boy witnessed the shooting of his older brother on the sidewalk in front of him. The boy, who was uninjured, stood stunned as he watched his brother's mouth move involuntarily as he died. The social worker led me to others with even more vivid stories.

The gentleman who swipes my key card at the Y gym had a younger brother who was very helpful too– the city police chief.

When I needed stories of children at risk, I turned to the director of the day care my children attended 23 years ago. I visited her because she's plugged into hundreds of families in the second-poorest census tract in the state.

She introduced me to two parents who led me to others.  She also gave me the cell number for her husband, who works in the Delaware Department for Children, Youth and Their Families, nicknamed the kids' department.  I knew he'd be helpful when he said, right off the bat, "Some of these kids start out life with one foot in the grave."

When I was searching for children affected by shootings I turned to families I stayed in touch with after volunteering at a homeless shelter a decade ago. They were eager to help.

 I also knew I'd need a great statistician backing me up. I paid a visit to a savvy policy scientist at the University of Delaware and explained what the fellowship project hoped to accomplish. She gave me the names of statisticians in a slew of state agencies and offered to make introductions.

I learned that, as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon proves, it's a small world after all.

The website that published the series had no crime database of its own, so I did a Nexis search of every newspaper story on city shootings for 24 months. Cutbacks within the city police department resulted in the elimination of the public affairs officer's slot, so I cajoled an overworked police sergeant into verifying my figures and addresses. Eventually, he became an ally, wresting even more information from an overworked police statistician for me.

With pointers from Annenberg social media virtuoso Angilee Shah, I created my first Google map to show the proximity of shootings to parks where children play. Green spaces indicated playgrounds and parks. Clicking on a blue dot takes viewers to  a photo of a shooting scene or a red one for a photo of a gun homicide scene.  At first glance, it looks as if the dots are far from the green spaces – until you click in and realize the dots cover the green spaces.

I was stunned by the openness of city officials, city residents, victims' parents, and even perpetrators.

In the end, with a project like this, there is never room to include everything. I still wish I had a way to share some of the vivid and disturbing stories left on the cutting room floor.

There was the mayor who called for orphanages for neglected children. And the investment accountant who related how her 19-year-old son was shot at her front door after he refused to give up his spot on a stoop. And the young woman who saw her father plunge a steak knife into her pregnant mother's lung when she was two years old, saw another man drag her mother up a flight of steps when she was five and scrambled to revive her mother beginning at age six when the man they were living with regularly choked her mother.

Reporters always find more stories than they can write. You always hate to leave story nuggets like these behind:

  • One city 24-year-old has been shot on six separate occasions. As one police officer pointed out, that's five more shootings than he and his brother have survived, although his brother served in Vietnam and both of them have been in law enforcement for more than two decades
  •  The city police chief explained that, as a result of the no-snitch mentality, the same young men alternate from being witnesses to being suspects to being victims. "It's like a revolving door," he says. "It's like the daily number – you can box it in no particular order."
  • Parents and social workers say social media is starting fights. One mother said 50 adolescents showed up on her porch on a snow day because her teen son's address went viral.  A social worker says middle-schoolers now challenge each other to fights on Facebook. The director of an after-school program led me videos of brutal neighborhood fights posted on You Tube with laugh tracks.

For my next project, a book, I'll be slipping back into the 19th Century  to research Washington, D.C. at the time of Abraham Lincoln's death. But I'll always be grateful for the attention Michelle Levander and everyone at USC's Annenberg School paid to Wilmington's 21st Century issues.

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