Siretha White remains a symbol of Chicago's gun violence since her death in 2006.
Siretha White was 10-years-old when she died. A stray bullet claimed her at her own birthday party. For weeks, Chicago couldn’t stop talking about this little girl who loved birthday cakes and lived in Englewood.
That was in 2006. Chicago may have moved on, but the tragedy lives on in memory of Siretha. In 7-year-old Heaven Sutton who was slain by a stray bullet while selling snow cones in her front yard last summer. In Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old majorette who was shot on Jan. 29, just a week after she marched in President Obama's inaugural parade.
Obama acknowledged this continuing violence against children in a speech at Hype Park Academy high school on Friday. "Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya is not unique," he said. "Too many of our children are being taken away from us."
Families struck by gun violence "deserve a vote" in Congress on controls, Obama said in his State of the Union address Tuesday.
“She [Siretha] died in my presence,” said Deanna Woods, Siretha’s aunt. “Nothing has changed [since then]. We are right back in the same situation. I am so tired of getting my heart broken. This is Obama's city. We shouldn't be hurting out here like this,” Woods said.
She was one among the many heartbroken parents who payed close attention to what Obama had to say.
They are skeptical, but hopeful – this “unfortunate club" of parents, as Ronald Holt, father of slain teenager Brian Holt, puts it. They know things are not the same once the spotlight goes away.
“The number of young people getting killed in Chicago is unacceptable,” said Holt, who is a commander in the Chicago Police Department.
When his son was shot On a CTA bus in 2007, Holt said Obama, then one of Illinois' senator, called him and said he would be willing to do anything he could to reduce the frequency of violence.
“Unfortunately, it has taken this long to move forward.”
So, what exactly is the magnitude of the problem? And why is it so hard to bring change to Chicago?
Of the 2,389 homicide victims between 2008 and 2012, nearly half were killed before their 25th birthday, City of Chicago figures show. Chicago has one of the highest death rates for those under 18 among major cities, according to official morbidity data. Nearly 60 school-aged kids are killed by guns in Chicago each year.
The shootings also have an economic cost. The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab estimates that gun violence costs the city about $2.5 billion annually – in hospital stays, court cases and law enforcement costs. That translates to about $2,500 per household.Nearly 60 school-aged kids are killed by guns in Chicago each year.
The worst part is a generation of Chicago’s children is growing up in a culture of violence. It affects them both mentally and physically and has serious long-term impacts, public health experts say.
Browen White, a Masters student in public health, and co-facilitator of the Radical Public Health Association at the University of Illinois said she knows of increasing cases of 5-year-olds who find it hard to sleep at night for fear of being shot at in their own homes. “It’s like growing up in a war zone,” White said.
With violence affecting the young so disproportionately, it is young students like White who are leading the cries for realistic and measurable change. Students at the University of Chicago, for example, have stepped up their campaign to increase the number of trauma centers on the South Side.
“The fact that wounded victims need to travel so far for treatment and are dying on the way is not inconsequential,” White said. “Addressing immediate quality of care is as important as addressing violence as a public health problem that affects not just the victims, but those around them.
“What are the values of our society if we are standing by and not acting while children get murdered – just because they don't look like us?” White said.
However, Tio Hardiman of CeaseFire said it is not incumbent on the system to do everything. “We need to start challenging families on what they are doing. Nobody is confronting their kids. All that these kids need is one or two seconds to stop and think. That’s what we are trying to give them. Families and communities need to get together to stop this madness,” he said.
In the meantime, as Chicago’s streets remain just the same, Woods runs a youth program for girls a few blocks away from where Siretha was killed. It is named after her niece, who was fondly called ‘Nugget.’
“All I am trying to do is keep them in the right direction. To turn these girls into women. But it’s getting harder and harder out here,” Woods said.