GREENSBORO — The recent high school graduates, close to the same age as his son, were headed to a friend’s house at 8 p.m. on a Sunday a few years ago when another vehicle blew through a red light at 100 mph.
It killed them.
“It’s tough to go into those situations and not transpose your child into the situation,” said High Point Police Capt. Peter Abernethy, who was among the first responders that night.
First responders. Their job, quite often, is to deal with horror and death. Tragedies involving children can be especially haunting for them.
“It should always shock your conscious,” Abernethy said of scenes involving the youngest victims. “That should never feel OK.”
Lately, there seems to have been a rash of incidents involving child deaths in the Triad. Like the murder-suicide that took the lives of two children and their 18-year-old brother earlier this month.
Or the three children — a 4-year-old named Antonio and 1-year-old twins Aerious and Anyis — who died in a house fire on Grimsley Street in the weeks before Christmas.
Then there were the siblings, ages 7 and 12, who were recently killed along with their mother during a head-on collision in Davidson County.
And a 12-year-old who was killed after people started shooting at a Winston-Salem park.
Those are the images that can run almost reel-to-reel for first responders.
But that’s not healthy, they say.
“We can not hold onto it,” said Abernethy, who was also on the scene of the recent tragedy in High Point involving a father who shot and killed his family before taking his own life. “There’s not enough room in us to do that.”
Studies show that even when rescuers and others say a tragedy has no personal effect on them, it can, even if not right away.
That’s why aftercare has taken on new meaning with emergency responders. It’s aimed at the many ways people process those emotions, explained Sari Goldberg, a senior Guilford County EMS paramedic who, after completing her master’s of science in clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling, spearheaded a comprehensive mental health program for paramedics and EMTs that includes group and individual interventions and coordination to outside resources.
Part of the healing process for those who are especially touched by an incident is knowing that you did everything possible — and knowing others may have the same feelings.
“It’s not as though people weren’t having these feelings and these reactions 15 years go,” Goldberg said. “Just nobody was talking about it. There’s incredible comfort just in knowing other people are experiencing the same thing that you are experiencing and knowing you are not alone in that. That your reaction is normal.”
It also creates a stronger team, Goldberg added, when there’s “an environment and a culture where people can talk to one another and have that bit of vulnerability.”
First responders may go through a million automobile victims, but the one in which a child died might haunt them.
Goldberg says that probably the need for counseling or conversation is disproportionate to the actual number of calls involving children. Sometimes it’s because first responders are employing skills not used as often because most calls involve adults. It’s also emotional for them because kids are innocent.
“It’s hard to process what happens to them sometimes,” Goldberg said.
While the public often considers first responders heroes or ordained to do the work, behind their uniforms, badges and credentials, they say, is a human heart.
“No matter how long you’ve been here — it doesn’t matter if you are a fresh new hire or veteran with lots of incidents — seeing children hurt is one of the worst things we have to experience,” said Dwayne Church, Greensboro’s deputy fire chief.
There’s something about emergency response work that attracts a certain type of person. Whether it’s medical, fire or police personnel, they have an ability to handle the pressure when they’re needed the most. They can assess a situation and function when others can’t.
But there is an emotional toll to pay, and emergency workers experience that probably more than the public realizes.
“When we would have one of those traumatic calls we’d gather around the table once we got back and make a pot of coffee and sit around and talk about it,” said Church about the early days of his 29-year career.
And many incidents that make up the daily routine don’t always make the news. Church recalls the choking baby thrust in his arms while responding to a call. He was a new father himself.
After the Grimsley Street fire that took the lives of those three children — an incident that was highly publicized — everyone who responded was called into a room.
“We knew that our people were hurt,” Church recalled. “We told them that we understand that ‘Y’all did the best you could do’ and ‘If you were staged outside the house when the call came in the outcome would not have changed.”
Of course, not every call is the same. And some are mundane. But the scars from more serious incidents can remain buried.
“I think all first responders have a kind of disassociation of themselves and their patients and the people they are interacting with in this capacity,” Goldberg said. “If you sat and thought about how each person that we are seeing is an individual with loved ones with their own hopes and dreams — if you really dwell on those things — they would be so overwhelming that you wouldn’t be able to function.”
Abernethy, the High Point police captain, says his agency puts a premium on the well-being of officers and considers that an important tool for doing the job right.
“It’s the first line of checks and balances for our officers,” Abernethy said. “We are never going to make it easy to go into these scenes. It’s never going to feel OK, but the processes that we have in place to help are being fully utilized.”
The men and women who perform autopsies see children who are sometimes burned, abused or unrecognizable. Sometimes they come with bullet wounds, broken bones or bruises so numerous they paint a once-tortured life. The medical examiners investigate those deaths, but also those that occur naturally.
Dr. John Butts, the retired state chief medical examiner, once recalled how for people in his line of work, their own child’s first year is particularly hard.
“They’re constantly going in (their bedrooms), constantly waking them up, constantly checking on them,” Butts told the News & Record in 2012. “You are absolutely paranoid about it.”
But the autopsy room is not the place to show emotion, regardless of who’s on the table, Butts said. The work that goes on helps find out how a person died, which could aid the police and legal system locate and prosecute the perpetrator — so it must be thorough and objective.
“Yes, you encounter things that are disturbing to other people who are not used to it,’ said Butts, whose office at the time was investigating the death of a 2-year-old Greensboro boy left in a car on a hot July day.
“You go in and do your job because you are a professional,” Butts said. “You don’t just sit there gaping at the horror of it all. But just because we use rational methods doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings.
“We feel that what we do is for some greater good.”
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.
WASHINGTON — When Hillary Clinton was running for president, her campaign wanted a gentler way to talk about the criminal investigation into her private email server, so they called it a “security review.”
Now President Joe Biden’s team is using similar language when talking about the discovery of classified documents in his Delaware home and former office. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, has often described the situation as a “review” or a “legal process,” using the term “investigation” less frequently.
Any White House or campaign tends to choose its words carefully, but never more so than when under a prosecutor’s scrutiny. It’s a rhetorical dance where political figures weigh demands for full disclosure against the political imperative to cast investigations in the least ominous light — not to mention the desire to avoid potential criminal charges.
“Between the media and political concerns of protecting a president by being transparent, and the legal concerns of not speaking when you don’t know everything, there’s got to be a balance,” said Lanny Davis, who served as a legal adviser to then-President Bill Clinton as he faced investigations from independent counsel Ken Starr.
Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the White House counsel’s office, acknowledged that tug of war when speaking off-camera to reporters this week — a conversation in which he didn’t shy away from using the word “investigation” repeatedly.
“I understand that there’s a tension between protecting and safeguarding the integrity of an ongoing investigation with providing information publicly appropriate with that,” he said.
Biden himself flashed frustration at all the focus on the documents matter when reporters questioned him about it while he was touring storm damage in California on Friday.
He said he was confident “there’s no there there” and described the controversy as merely ″a handful of documents ... filed in the wrong place.”
Biden’s team has faced criticism for its fragmented disclosures about the documents, occasionally leading to heated exchanges between reporters and Jean-Pierre in the White House briefing room.
She ran into trouble when she suggested last Friday that all documents had been recovered, only to have an additional discovery disclosed over the weekend.
“Are you upset that you came out to this podium on Friday with incomplete and inaccurate information?” one reporter asked Jean-Pierre on Tuesday. “And are you concerned that it affects your credibility up here?”
Jean-Pierre responded by saying that “what I’m concerned about is making sure that we do not politically interfere in the Department of Justice,” describing the situation as an “ongoing process.”
Earlier in the briefing, Jean-Pierre said she was trying to be “prudent” with what information she shares.
“I’m going to let this ongoing review that is happening, this legal process that is happening, and let that process continue under the special counsel,” she said.
There’s a long history of administrations deflecting about ongoing probes. Scott McClellan, who represented President George W. Bush’s White House, and Mike McCurry, who did the same for President Bill Clinton, frequently punted questions elsewhere rather than provide their own commentary.
Davis also said he doesn’t blame the White House for favoring some words over others.
“You use the word ‘review’ instead of ‘investigation.’ I’ve done it hundreds of times on behalf of clients,” he said. “Why do I not use the word ‘investigate?’ Because it’s harsher. It’s an understandable choice to use a softer word.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland last week appointed a special counsel to lead the investigation, a decision that could leave a lingering cloud over the White House as Biden prepares a potential reelection campaign.
Richard Sauber, a lawyer for the president, has not used the word “investigation” in any of his written statements about the case, but he’s stressed the White House’s willingness to cooperate with the Justice Department. He said Thursday: “We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced, and the president and his lawyers acted promptly upon discovery of this mistake.”
There’s no single playbook for how to speak about a criminal investigation that reaches into the White House or touches one of its aspirants.
Former President Donald Trump, for instance, spewed vitriol at the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller during an investigation into whether his 2016 campaign coordinated with Russia, repeatedly deriding it as a “witch hunt” and claiming, falsely, that it was led by “angry Democrats.” Bill Clinton’s personal lawyer, David Kendall, blasted Starr for leaks and an “overkill” in his investigation during House impeachment proceedings in 1998.
In some instances, the White House has disclosed or confirmed information about an ongoing criminal probe that a defense lawyer in a lower-profile probe might be less inclined to do. That’s what happened in 2004 when the White House acknowledged to the media that President Bush had been interviewed by investigators as part of a special counsel probe into the leak of the covert identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame one year earlier.
“The leaking of classified information is a very serious matter,” McClellan, then White House press secretary, said at the time. “No one wants to get to the bottom of this matter more than the president of the United States.”
When it comes to handling legal matters involving the White House, it’s “a little more intense — its concerns are a little bit broader than a corporation. It adds a different level of concern,” said Bill Jeffress, a veteran Washington attorney who represented former Bush administration official I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was convicted of lying to investigators and obstruction in the Plame leak probe.
Hillary Clinton came under an FBI investigation in 2015 for her use of a private email server as secretary of state. Dogged by questions on the campaign trail about the probe, she and campaign officials took to calling it a “security review” or “security inquiry.” That branding, a seeming attempt to minimize a criminal investigation, drew a mild chiding in 2016 from then-FBI Director James Comey, who said he was unfamiliar with that terminology.
“I don’t know what that means,” Comey told reporters when asked about the “security inquiry” language. “We’re conducting an investigation. That’s the Bureau’s business, that’s what we do. That’s probably all I can say about it.”
In the Biden case, the White House has faced criticism for waiting two months to disclose that the president’s lawyers had located some documents with classified markings in a locked closet at the Penn Biden Center in Washington. Officials did not reveal until several days later that even more documents had also been located, this time in Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware.
Jean-Pierre rejected suggestions that the White House had not been transparent. Even though the public wasn’t informed, she said, the Justice Department and National Archives had been notified.
“I want to say that we have been transparent here,” she said last week. “That is why the minute that his lawyers found those documents, they reported it.”
Sams told reporters the White House was releasing information as it deemed it “appropriate” and was trying to balance transparency with respect for the Justice Department’s work. He said the White House was trying to be mindful of the “risk” in sharing information that was not complete.
It’s unclear if anyone might face criminal charges or if prosecutors can establish that anyone willfully broke the law — a high legal standard. Biden has said he was surprised by the discovery of the documents. And in any event, the Justice Department has long held that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Regardless, questions about the investigation — or the review or the legal process — will not be going away anytime soon.