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Shock Haunts Children Who See Parent's Slaying : Violence: Study finds that, without help, up to 200 minors a year in L.A. alone can suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.

October 05, 1995|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The summer began and ended with the screams of children watching their mothers die, allegedly at the hands of the fathers.

On Mother's Day, police and paramedics found 2-year-old Michael Carasi in a Universal CityWalk parking garage, strapped into his car seat and pointing toward the crimson pools where his mother and grandmother lay with their throats slashed. "Mommy! Mommy!" he wailed.

The day before the Labor Day weekend, 6-year-old Lisa Zelig's shrieks were equally haunting. "Dad!" she cried out, according to witnesses to the shooting of her mother, Eileen Zelig, in Downtown's Civil Courts Building. "My dad shot my mom." And then her words dissolved into shrieks, echoing through the corridors.

Such heart-rending sounds are heard more often than one might think.

In Los Angeles alone, as many as 200 children a year witness the slaying of a parent, according to a 1994 study by two Los Angeles psychiatrists.

The effects can be devastating, said the authors, Spencer Eth and Robert L. Pynoos, whose study of 55 children, ages 3 to 17, is considered the largest of its kind. They expressed surprise that the legacy of violence continues to be such a neglected and "relatively under-reported area of exploration in psychiatry."

The trauma of watching a parent die violently can provoke overwhelming helplessness and prolonged memories of the most violent moments, the study found. Indelible images linger, "such as the plunge of a knife or the blast of a shotgun," the authors said. The child's senses are assaulted by "the sight, sound and smell of gunfire; the screams or sudden silence of the victim; the splash of blood and tissue on the child's own clothes, the grasp of a dying parent; and the sirens of arriving police and ambulance."

What these children experience, most researchers now agree, are classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a psychological state most often associated with war veterans and disaster survivors. Post-traumatic stress syndrome has been observed in children under 4, and suspected in children as young as 2.

Without assistance from therapists, Eth and Pynoos said, children who witness the murder of a parent are more likely to continue the cycle of violence, perhaps even committing or becoming victims of homicide.

Complicating the problem is the fact children seldom talk about the horrors they have witnessed. So begins what Eth calls "a conspiracy of silence not to talk about the bad event."

Until recently, adults interpreted a child's silence in the face of trauma as a sign that all was well--a reflection of children's much-vaunted resiliency. In fact, it usually means the opposite.

"A child acts like nothing is wrong," said Linda Cunningham, director of bereavement services at Kaiser-Permanente Hospital in Panorama City. But "it comes out in play. Just to be with them when they go, 'Pow! Pow! Pow!,' it's very dramatic. As I'm watching, I'm thinking, 'Good, get it out. Put it someplace appropriate.' "

Play and drawing have long been used by therapists to encourage children to express these feelings. On a recent Saturday in South-Central Los Angeles, Saundrea Young, one of the co-founders of Loved Ones of Homicide Victims, led half a dozen children, ages 5 to 11, through an exercise. One child had lost three relatives to the violence of the streets. Another child, a 7-year-old girl, was with her mother when a stray bullet killed the woman.

Young, whose organization is one of a handful of places that offer specialized counseling for children who have witnessed a parent's slaying, encouraged the children to think of happy memories. She asked them to create a sort of photo album of those memories for the slain people they missed. One boy, 5, scribbled angry red lines. The 7-year-old, a bright, aggressive child, rolled her eyes and punched the boy next to her in the arm. She had been through this drill before.

She drew a house, and colored it bright yellow.

"That looks like a very happy house," Young said encouragingly.

"It was," the little girl said with a frown. "Until somebody came along."

Another study of 2 1/2-year-old twins, released this summer, dispelled another myth: that very young children won't remember or understand the violence they witness. In fact, this study concluded, the younger the child, the more profound the impact.

Three researchers in New Orleans found that the twins, who had watched their father shoot their mother, carried away vivid memories during the subsequent months, even if they could not fully articulate them. As with older children, the memories surfaced spontaneously during play; the boys grew highly aggressive with each other, scratching and frequently cursing.

Years later, after their verbal skills have developed, children can describe what they saw with gripping detail, the study said.

So it is with two other twins--now 15, living in the San Gabriel Valley--who watched a dozen years ago as their stepfather stabbed their mother to death.

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