Beyond Wounds: Counseling After Salinas Gang Violence Sometimes Overlooked

This story is the end result of months of hurdles and changes. Finding a victim of violence to speak about the crime and how he/she moved forward in the aftermath proved more difficult that I thought. I found the central person in my article just a week before deadline. But in the end, I'm very proud of the final outcome. The Californian, when a gang shooting occurs, usually only focuses on who the victim, when killed, was and the suspect, if that person is caught. My main goal of the project was to showcase another aspect of violence experienced in Salinas. I think I did that.

Joel Aguilar has never been a gang member, but has three bullets in him nonetheless.

The east Salinas teenager is largely paralyzed: He can move his neck, raise both his arms a few inches and move one wrist — the physical toll of a "gang-related" shooting that nearly killed him two years ago.

"That night, I was supposed to die," he said, remembering the doctors told his parents at the time he wouldn't last a week.

"But I'm still here."

He refuses to dwell on what happened, but can still vividly remember the sequence of the shooting — from hearing sounds of gunshots to the fire hydrant he crashed his father's truck into.

"That's when everything blacked out," Aguilar said, his voice stoic and confident, recalling gaining consciousness long enough to hear the sirens and the voices of police officers and firefighters on scene.

"I never thought about dying."

Health experts say a victim of traumatic, violent events such as Aguilar should seek therapy to address any lasting emotional effects from such violence.

"But I don't think I need counseling," he said. "Ever since it happened to me, I had a positive attitude. I'm ... living the present and dreaming the future."

His mother, Celia Aguilar, acknowledges counseling could be helpful for her family. Because of financial reasons, it hasn't been an option.

The Aguilars are among the countless families in Salinas who, for varying reasons, have only dealt with physical and not with mental and emotional effects of experiencing firsthand the outbreaks of violence on the area's gang-infested streets.

The injury has been hard on Aguilar's parents, who both left their jobs to care for their son. His mother wakes up every four hours at night to change his position in bed so Joel doesn't develop bed sores.

"I don't think my mom has slept a whole night since this happened to me," Aguilar said.

But in the two years since he was shot, he said, he has rarely shed tears over the incident.

"I've only broken down three times," Aguilar said. And never at the hospital, even after he learned he was paralyzed.

Dealing with grief

Aguilar just completed his GED from Mount Toro High School in February and plans to study mathematics at Hartnell College.

But struggles persist.

Celia Aguilar said that at times, out of frustration, she tells Joel she wishes she could have her old son back. Joel says the same about her.

"I find myself crying when I try to be strong for my son," Celia Aguilar said.

But she carries on, thanks to the strength of her friends, family and her son, she said.

Many other victims of violence, however, have even rougher recoveries.

"Different people grieve differently; they deal with trauma differently," said Eduardo Eizner, a family therapist who sees patients referred to him by the Monterey County Victims/Witnesses of Crime Unit operated by the District Attorney's Office.

Some people take days to move forward, he said. Others take years.

Those who fail to get help could experience social withdrawal, poor sleep and nightmares, and develop drug and alcohol abuse — among other symptoms — depending on level of exposure, age, previous experiences and strength of faith and family support.

Several studies have also shown that exposure to violence can affect brain development, especially in younger children.

As many as one-third of children exposed to community violence are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said Dr. Victor Carrion, director of the Stanford University Early Life Stress Research Program.

"Experiencing violence and trauma is not part of normal development," he said. "It cannot be brushed off."

'Scary quiet'

Several phone calls Natalia Mariscal answered last fall had parents making the same inquiry about their children.

"They would say, 'They're here, but they're not with us,' " the Alisal High School counselor said, recalling the days following the Oct. 1 murder of a 15-year-old sophomore who died on campus as students arrived for classes.

School counselors immediately made themselves available after the campus lockdown was lifted, but the anticipated onslaught of students expressing grief and fear didn't come.

The shooting occurred at 7:53 a.m. on a Friday, on the back field of the school — a pathway many students use on their way to school.

After the weekend, the crisis intervention continued.

"That Monday was a scary quiet," Mariscal said. "You wanted the kids to react."

It wasn't until days and weeks later that parents and teachers contacted Mariscal and other school counselors seeking advice.

"We had students who were afraid of going to school. Kids who normally had no problems suddenly had anxiety about coming to school," she said. "We had to make sure those students and parents got referred to the right services."

Many called upon to help

With a 500-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio in the Salinas Union High School District, Mariscal said counselors utilize many of the city's and county's nonprofits and volunteers to provide grief support.

One of the services is Griefbusters, operated by Hospice of the Central Coast. It has about 350 volunteers trained to address grief and recognize symptoms of PTSD. Its services are available throughout Monterey and San Benito counties, and serves clients grieving the natural death of a loved one and those who have lost someone to violence.

Griefbusters coordinator Eva Sandoval said when a shooting happens, her group has a well-coordinated response to schools or homes near the crime scene. Volunteers include retirees, school counselors and staff members of area nonprofits.

"Even though we're not professionals coming in providing therapy ... just feeling supported is sometimes enough [for those traumatized]," Sandoval said.

Diagnosing and treatment are left to the health experts.

Mariscal and Sandoval said Griefbusters volunteers and counselors can only advise a family suffering from evident trauma to seek support and suggest where they can get help, such as the Monterey County Victims of Crime Unit.

"What I'm finding is that many families don't take advantage of that support," Sandoval said.

Trauma's effects

Grief is a normal response to a loss — with stages ranging from denial to acceptance. Trauma goes beyond grief.

"It stops them in their tracks," Eizner said.

Experiencing trauma, experts caution, doesn't doom victims to a life of struggles.

But studies have found trauma can negatively affect brain development, with teenagers and children more susceptible to PTSD than adults, according to "Healing the Hurt: Trauma-Informed Approaches to the Health of Boys and Young Men of Color," a report released in 2009 by Drexel University in Philadelphia and funded by the California Endowment.

With chemical changes in the body, especially during puberty, trauma could make adolescents more prone to risky behaviors, to poor concentration and to emotional outbursts — all of which can affect relationships and education.

"If you have a brain that's developing, it's clearly vulnerable," said Carrion, of Stanford. "When kids experience violence, it's not one traumatic event that they experience. The issues are ongoing."

Tally of violence

Since 2008, Salinas, with about 155,000 residents, has seen 70 gang-related homicides — and a countless number of non-fatal shootings.

There was the death of 6-year-old Azahel Cruz, struck by a stray bullet that entered his east Salinas home in March 2010.

A 17-year-old boy was fatally shot as he walked in the 1200 block of Del Monte Avenue after dropping off his younger brother at school last September.

There were the 15- and 14-year-olds, who, police say, were shot by fellow teenagers who gained the victims' trust before killing them in an orchestrated ruse in 2009 near Hartnell College.

And so many more.

Salinas saw back-to-back, record-setting homicide tallies in 2008 and 2009. In 2009, Monterey County had the state's highest youth murder rate, according to a study released in February.

Reyna Toledo, an outreach consultant at the Soledad Community Education Center, decided to join the Griefbusters program nearly eight years ago after seeing the consequences of choices many of her alternative high school students made — from teen pregnancy to gang involvement.

"Many everyday choices these kids made brought pain," she said.

Toledo said some of the students she sees are simply grieving and she helps them through the stages.

When students don't appear to be coping, are in denial, or are not consciously aware of their emotions — usually unprovoked anger — "I tell them that it might be more than grief," she said.

Memory of fateful day

Feb. 19, 2009, plays vividly in Joel Aguilar's mind.

He and another 17-year-old boy decided to visit a childhood friend on their way home from Aguilar's girlfriend's house. At 10:04 p.m. in the 900 block of Acosta Plaza, he was shot. Aguilar found himself crashing his father's truck into a fire hydrant.

In statements immediately after the shooting, police said Aguilar and his passenger had been approached by two males, one wearing a beanie and a multi-colored shirt, who fired several shots at the truck.

The gunmen have not been identified. Aguilar was flown to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. He had been shot five times. The doctors, he said, only took out two bullets.

"The others were too dangerous to take them out," Aguilar said. Two bullets remain lodged in his skull and another in his spinal cord.

Officer Lalo Villegas, a spokesman for the Salinas Police Department, said the unsolved case of who shot Aguilar remains open, but inactive, pending any new information. Police said the shooting was gang-related, but added that neither of the victims was ever involved in gangs.

"A lot of people think they're safe out there ... They don't think this is going to happen to them," Aguilar said. "The message I want to give out is to be more careful. Even though you're not a gang member, this might happen."

Victims become survivors

If it does happen, officials said, victims should seek counseling. They may be eligible for the Victim Compensation Program through the county District Attorney's Office.

About 510 applications were received in 2010.

But many who may qualify have not applied because they don't know about it. And others, Toledo said, can't bring themselves to seek the help, even if trauma is evident.

n her tenure as a Griefbuster volunteer, a "majority" of those she's urged to seek counseling declined to do so.

Toledo said this resistance to seeking help indicates a need to bolster mental health education and outreach in violence-stricken Salinas neighborhoods, because many families seem to think getting counseling would mean they have a serious mental problem.

"And it [doesn't]," she said. "Their only sense of peace is if or when the police catch the person that did [the crime and caused their suffering]."

Yet most of the gang-related homicides and attempted murder cases in Salinas go unsolved. In 2009, of the 29 homicides, police made arrests in five cases.

Those who commit a crime and those who were involved in the events that led up to it are not eligible for the Victim Compensation program, said advocate Susana Reyes.

If accepted, victims and their families can receive counseling and assistance with medical bills for costs and services their health plans don't cover.

Reyes said applications can be filed within one year after a crime — but there are exceptions. Reyes said some victims often have legitimate reasons for not filing quickly. In the aftermath of violence, victims and families are understandably more concerned with other priorities.

"The goal of the service is simple," Reyes said. "It's about turning victims into survivors."

Salinas Californian staff writer Griselda Ramirez contributed to this article.