Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Are you still a mother if your child passes away? What if you lose a child and just so happen to be engaged in a casual conversation with a stranger who offhandedly asks, “So, how many children do you have?” How do you answer that? In the wake of a homicide, maintaining your composure while facing questions like these could be the hardest part of your existence.  

The year 2018 ended with 160 homicides on the books in D.C.—a 38 percent increase from the previous year. In the first 15 days of 2019, 12 more have died by homicide. 

Parents of past victims—those who lost their children before this recent spike—know something about what’s in store for grieving families. 

The victimization does not end at the scene of the crime or by capturing the perpetrator. City Paper interviewed three D.C. parents who lost their children to bullets in years past. The lack of respect from homicide detectives, the shortage of therapists and grief counselors, the discouragement of unsolved cases, have made these parents victims in a secondary manner. The promises of legislation like D.C.’s 2016 NEAR Act, a progressive omnibus policing bill that focuses on accountability and treating violent crime as a public health concern, are bright. But the provisions of the act have been slow to materialize, and bereavement is not included in D.C.’s paid family leave law. 

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Kenny Barnes Sr. with a photo of his son, Kenny Barnes Jr. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

September 24, 2001. Kenny Barnes Sr. is standing in the morgue at DC General Hospital staring at his namesake’s body on a gurney, his life extinguished prematurely by a quarter-sized gunshot wound to the head. A clergyman approaches him cautiously and says, “You got to give it over to Jesus, son.” Without missing a beat, Barnes Sr. turns back to him and says, “Get out of my goddamn face! You think I wanna hear that right now? If Jesus had anything to do with this then I don’t believe in Jesus.” 

Kenny Barnes Jr. was 37 at the time of his death. He was an entrepreneur who had a vision to open a store on U Street NW—before it was a trendy District hotspot. The Coolidge High School graduate opened his first store in City Place in Silver Spring and called it The Leather Shop. When he told his father that he wanted to open a shop on U Street NW, Barnes Sr. thought his son was crazy. “He said, ‘Dad, I wanna tell you something. U Street one day is going to be one of the best streets in the United States.’ So he went there in 1999 and he had a clothing store,” recalls Barnes Sr. 

Boutique U sold bright, unique clothes suitable for late-night parties and the clubs. Barnes Jr. was doing well, but not getting rich, according to his father. He had a wife and five children to support. He also had a desire to give back to his community, so he employed an 18-year-old man by the name of James D. Hill, aka “Dee,” who would do odd jobs around the shop for money. Barnes Jr. was fond of him.

On the day of the murder, Barnes Jr. was in his shop talking on the phone. When Hill entered the store with another young man he was high on PCP. Barnes Jr. and Hill engaged in a conversation lasting about five minutes. Barnes Sr. recalls what a witness told him later on. “And so the guy [Dee] pulls a gun out and says, ‘You know what time it is, Kenny.’ And Kenny said, ‘Stop playing, man. Get that gun out of my face.’ Dee clicked the gun once and it stalled. The second time, he shot him in his face. Instantly murdered him.” 

Hill was wanted for two other murders in the same year that he killed Barnes Jr. A Post investigation later revealed that Hill had absconded from a group home where he was supposed to be under the city’s supervision—and that his case fit a pattern. Between 1999 and 2002, nine people died at the hands of juveniles who were supposed to be in the city’s care, according to the investigation, and the youth frequently ran away from city programs for days and even months at a time. Only two D.C. police officers were assigned to find runaways by 1999, and they often were reassigned from that task. 

Hill went through Barnes Jr.’s pockets looking for money after he shot him, and attempted to open the cash register. He fled the scene after taking a shot at a bystander. “I was so mad with this young man. Still am,” his father reflects. The anger on his face looks like it happened an hour ago.

Barnes Sr. got two calls that night. One from his daughter, Carmen, telling him that Junior had been shot, and the other from his wife. Barnes Sr. was a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore at the time. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing on the other end of the receiver. “He and I were like brothers. We hung out. We traveled together,” says Barnes Sr. “My son had built up a clothing store like a prophet. He saw what was coming. And the tragedy is he didn’t live to see it after it exploded.” 

Hill was sentenced to 105 years in prison, but Barnes Sr. still takes issue with D.C.’s Youth Services Administration (which became the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in 2001). “D.C. had this agency that retains violent children. And they kept escaping. And don’t nobody even bother to go and look for them. They didn’t put any active effort into finding them. Who’s really at fault here? I started a campaign against YSA. I felt that YSA, with its lackadaisical policies, was the reason why my son was murdered. They were directly responsible for that,” he says. 

A year after his son’s death, Barnes Sr. was invited to speak on Reporter’s Roundtable, a local television program on D.C. cable Channel 16 hosted by Denise Rolark-Barnes. Then-Police Chief Charles Ramsey was also present for the show. Barnes Sr. didn’t miss the chance to voice his frustrations with the way the police handled murder cases of black victims. 

“There were 15 victims of homicide represented,” he recounts. “Fourteen black and one white. Every one of the black families had a problem with the way their case was handled. The one white guy thought his case was handled fine. He didn’t have a problem at all. I said to him, ‘Chief Ramsey, all of the black families that I talked to had a problem with how our family member’s case was handled. The detectives don’t get back to us. They don’t talk to us. It’s like they don’t care. But this one white guy loved them. Don’t you see a problem with that?’” 

These days, Barnes Sr., 73, does more research and organizing to try and turn around the juvenile crime crisis in the District. He spends his down time watching television. “Before Kenny passed, I was living large—going to school, hanging out, going to events around town. After he died, what was right became wrong to me, and what I thought was before wrong was now right. So running the streets and chasing women and drinking was not right to me anymore.” 

As for forgiveness, it’s not going to happen. “What can he say to me? He’s sorry? He ruined my whole life. You never get closure. Anyone who tells you that has never lost a child. How can you get closure for losing a child? Just because you found the person that did it? How does that bring closure? Your child is gone forever.” 

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Cynthia DeShola Dawkins with photos of her son, Timothy Dawkins-El Credit: Darrow Montgomery

August 21, 2013. Cynthia DeShola Dawkins is about to enjoy some crabs when she gets a phone call from her son, Michael. “And he said, ‘Mama, somebody shot Timothy. He’s dead. Somebody shot Timothy. Somebody killed Timothy.’ I’m like, ‘Huh? What are you talking about? What do you mean somebody killed Timothy?’” She didn’t need to hear anymore talk. What she needed at that moment was confirmation.

DeShola Dawkins remembers racing to Fourth Street SE, a few steps from Hendley Elementary School, to find police barricades and onlookers in her way. She rushed up to an officer and shouted, “You gotta let me through! I want to know is that my son out there.” When her demands were not met, she tried a different approach. 

She asked the officer four questions.

“Listen, is there somebody dead over there?”

“Is it a guy?”

“Does he have ’locks?”

“Look at me. Does he look like me?”

The officer couldn’t confirm much. But her ex-husband stood nearby along the barricade. “I said, ‘Is that our son? Is that our son over there?’ He said, ‘Cynthia, I don’t know.’ I said, ‘What the hell do you mean you don’t know? You don’t know your own goddamn child?’” 

She didn’t find out for sure until the detective called her later on to verify that it was her son who had been lying face down in a pool of blood on the street. That was her sixth born on the sidewalk suffering from the damage of a bullet that entered the center of his back, severing his spine and then exiting his throat. She screamed and sobbed inconsolably.

The victim was Timothy Delonte Dawkins-El, 24. His mother calls him a “scholar,” the kind who loves the library more than the classroom. He was the child who would leave the house when his siblings fought because he couldn’t take the violence. He was a father to one son, Ezekiel, who was 2 years old at the time of his father’s transition. Timothy was an avid Frank Sinatra fan who made videos of himself singing his hits. He championed the underdog. “Go talk to Dawkins,” is what his mother recalls people saying when they had trouble.

He’d attended a five-day youth advocacy and organizing training with the Children’s Defense Fund and Marian Wright Edelman a few weeks before he died. He’d met Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and counted Trayon White, now the Ward 8 councilmember, as his best friend and godfather to his son. “I meet thousands of people and I’ve never met another man his age on his level, intellectually or spiritually,” says Councilmember White.

Dawkins-El, who was unarmed, died in an exchange of gunfire between two other men. The man with whom Dawkins-El was walking, Darious Scales, engaged in a gun battle with a man named Todd Green. Dawkins-El took the hit. Since forensics couldn’t prove that Green’s gun was the actual murder weapon, he was charged with carrying an illegal firearm. Green served 17 months in prison. 

Where does that leave the Dawkins family? Angry, anxious, and dismantled. Dawkins-El’s younger sister, a certified nurse assistant who was living with him at the time of his death, was relocated to protective custody for two and a half years in case the perpetrator wanted to seek revenge. She had to disconnect from all the life she had ever known. Her mother stressed. “How was she going to work? She had a small child so she had to get daycare. But she was afraid to come to D.C.” DeShola Dawkins was crushed to see her daughter’s life completely uprooted. 

As for DeShola Dawkins, the most unexpected struggle of living in the wake of her son’s murder was the loss of trust in a community where she reared her children. “I had to watch what I said because I didn’t know who I was talking to. And in D.C., when your child gets murdered like that, I wondered, ‘Why did they murder my son?’ You know what I’m saying? Was it political? When you have seven children and you had a daycare for 10 years, everybody knows you.” 

A loss of trust is common for families who lose a loved one to homicide. Stephanie Handel, Grief and Trauma Psychotherapist at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Southeast D.C., explains that violent crimes can often lead to an existence full of worry. 

“Homicide robs you of your sense of power and control,” says Handel. “Families are so cautious about how they talk about the death because it could potentially compromise the case. If too much information gets out it could spread something that could impact someone being apprehended. Anything like that can be unsettling for a family.” Mistrust may seep into a family member’s every interaction. “I walk down the street thinking, ‘Any one of you might have been the person who killed my partner or my son or my daughter because I haven’t been told that anyone has been apprehended,’” says Handel. 

The wounds of loss have not healed for DeShola Dawkins. And what about forgiveness? How does she feel about Green, who was, ironically, shot and killed on the same street in January of 2018? She laughs, “I’m happy he’s gone.” 

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Judith Davidson Hawkins with her son, Alvin C. Layne II Credit: Courtesy Judith Davidson Hawkins

July 19, 2015. Judith Davidson Hawkins never knew she could run that fast, but when she got the call that her son had been shot just a few blocks away from her home in Glassmanor, Prince George’s County, she made haste to the scene. When she arrived she saw him sprawled on the pavement very still. Police tape, lights, engines running made for the longest Sunday night of her life. 

Who knew that when her son, Momo, stepped out for a quick minute to retrieve his tie from a friend that he would end up shot on Addison Road? As the emergency medical technicians brought out a body bag, Hawkins began to scream. “You’ve got to breathe, boy!” She refused to surrender to that bag. Momo, legally Alvin C. Layne II, was flown via helicopter to R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. 

Hawkins had no transportation to get to Baltimore and the police held her back for questioning. “We get to Eastover and they grill me like a criminal,” she says. “All I wanted to do was get to wherever they were taking my son. They wanted to see my ID but I didn’t have it because I ran out of the house. So I’m at the police station. They take me into a room and they’re asking me all of these questions. Do I know any friends that would do this? Where was he coming from? Was he involved in a gang? I’m like, ‘I need to get to Baltimore.’” 

Layne II came out of surgery after a few hours. But the relief only lasted for a moment. His doctor told him that he was paralyzed from the from the waist down. “Why didn’t you just let me lay there and die?” he asked his mother as he cried. It’s a question that he would repeat over and over in the months afterward. And more questions would follow. Layne II was going to need round-the-clock care from now on. Who was going to pay for that? He would require a wheelchair to get around. Where could they stay that was accessible? What paperwork had to be filled out and what did it all mean? Would someone come back to try and finish him off? 

The only question that remains unanswered is who shot Layne II. 

The search for housing was a perplexing process. “When they talk about housing, people assume that when you’re disabled it’s these places that will accomodate you. But it’s not.” They filled out paperwork for places and programs. Some never even called her back. The cheapest and most wheelchair accessible place she could find was The Village of Parkland—a WC Smith-owned property between Alabama and Mississippi avenues SE. Hawkins describes it as “a real violent place.” It was moldy and infested with roaches, mice, and bedbugs. 

On May 23 of the following year, Hawkins received a text from her son while he was staying at his girlfriend’s house. “Hey Ma. This ain’t the life a nigga like me can suck up and live.” Paralysis, the wheelchair, and all the inconveniences that came along with it exhausted him. She was plenty tired as well from suing her landlord and scrambling to make ends meet while dodging her credit card bill collectors. But she spoke to him and his spirits lifted. Then around 1 a.m., two detectives knocked on her door. Momo had shot himself to death. “I cried and screamed,” she recalls. “I mean I ran all over that apartment.” 

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Policies and programs can ease what is a stunning burden. Where the NEAR Act meets the need is that it has allotted funding for more social workers at emergency rooms to connect trauma victims to services. Howard University, Medstar Washington Hospital Center, and Prince George’s Community Hospital have this program in place, according to the District’s NEAR Act website. But United Medical Center in Southeast D.C., which reports receiving 77 gunshot wound victims in 2018, is not yet on this list. Barnes Sr., DeShola Dawkins, and Hawkins needed support at several points in the wake of their children’s shootings.  

Joyal Mulheron, founder and executive director of EVERMORE, a nonprofit organization based in Northwest D.C. that supports grieving families, has talked with dozens of families across the country who have lost their children to violence, illness, and accidental causes. She says that there are two sides that can create tremendous stress for a parent grieving a child. “There’s the death event itself. What’s happening on the crime scene or in the hospital as the scene is unfolding, and what does that look like? How did the police interface with the family when the family learned of the death? And then there’s the after effect. The interaction with employers and family and clergy members or social media that can further compound or victimize.”

One of her biggest frustrations is the lack of qualified therapists who specialize in homicide. “There’s such a tremendous need in Washington,” she says. “Support groups are helpful, but the parent has to be willing to go. Therapists who specialize in trauma can offer more clinical insight, but there are waitlists for therapists in and around D.C.” The federal government has designated parts of the District as health professional shortage areas in mental health care, along with primary care and dental. 

Financial woes are another grave concern for grieving families. In Hawkins’ case, she had an employer who allowed her time away from work to bury her son, but employers are not required to offer that. The fight for paid family and medical leave in D.C. has neglected to include bereavement leave for the loss of a child, something that is desperately needed among low income families who suffer from sudden violent events. 

“I would like to believe that employers do the best they can,” says Mulheron. “They also have a business to run. So they do need their employees present. Some families have to go to work because they have bills to pay and they won’t be getting paid. Once you have financial instability, this is where I think family solvency becomes a problem.” 

D.C. does have a crime victims compensation fund, and families of “innocent victims of violent crime” can apply for funds to cover funeral costs, mental health services, and two weeks of lost wages, among other crime-related needs. Between October 2017 and September 2018 the fund paid nearly a million dollars in these expenses. 

From a prevention perspective, the NEAR Act has funded its Pathways Program in the DC Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. The program, less than a year old, promises to engage with those most at risk of killing or being killed, helping them with employment, mental health, and substance abuse, asking them to own their past actions. 

This program is too young to evaluate, and too late to save the children of Barnes Sr., DeShola Dawkins, and Hawkins. They’ve tried to make similar strides for the community, in their own ways. 

Barnes Sr. has continued to shed light on issues that affect the youth in the District. He founded Reaching Out to Others Together in 2002, an advocacy group for homicide victims and their families. He brought media attention to the K2 issue in the city in 2012. DeShola Dawkins’ collaborated with another mom of a murdered son, Marion Gray-Hopkins, to start Coalition of Concerned Mothers in 2015. The organization supports families who have been affected by community violence, police brutality, and mass incarceration. 

They can’t bring their children back or fill the empty space that lingers in their lives. But perhaps they can temporarily satiate their spirits with positivity. Something that an apology from a perpetrator could never accomplish.

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