In 1995, on a Friday afternoon in early November, 33-year-old Dan Foote lifted a rifle out of the trunk of his car and walked between two houses into his back yard in the 1400 block of West Dalton. Neighbors and Foote’s mother, who lived nearby, heard a shot ring out, followed a few seconds later by another. That afternoon, Foote shot and killed his girlfriend, Denise Chapman, 30, who was holding their two-year-old daughter, Samantha. Then he shot himself in the head.
Her hair matted with blood, Chapman lay in the driveway dying, with her arm draped across their daughter.
The next day, Spokane’s daily paper reported that both adults died at the scene. The toddler was not injured. Neighbors, on a nearby porch, said, “Their baby was with her. She wasn’t crying.”
At the time, the reporters couldn’t have known that to say the toddler wasn’t injured was a highly inaccurate statement.
Samantha Ehli, 25, the toddler in the story, says she doesn’t remember anything about the tragic events from that day, but it’s apparent that she was indeed injured.
Today we know that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) like Ehli’s can harm a child’s developing brain, and change how they respond to stress, and damage their immune systems so profoundly that the effects still show up decades later, say public health researchers.
As Oprah Winfrey reported in her story for 60 Minutes recently, there is a remarkable link between childhood trauma and the impact it has on future violence, victimization, chronic disease and social and emotional problems.
The Centers for Disease Control has identified it as an important public health issue.
Ehli says her family didn’t want to tell her what happened that afternoon in 1995.
“My family was so hurt and broken about the situation that they didn’t want to tell me the truth. They didn’t really want me to know my dad was who he was, and that my mom used drugs and so did my dad,” Ehli says matter-of-factly. “There was jealousy, domestic violence, and drugs causing him to hurt her—and just chaos, really.
“I don’t remember my mom. I don’t even know her smell,” she says. “I have only one picture of her holding me when I was a baby. I have no memories of my dad. All I know is that he was a drunk and an alcoholic, and when he was little his dad fed him alcohol. It started off with whiskey when he was teething and then him sneaking alcohol from his dad when he was older.”
Denise Chapman had two other children, a boy and a girl, both several years older than Samantha, from a previous marriage. Samantha’s half-brother and sister were separated and sent to their father after their mother’s tragic death.
Ehli was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, where she stayed until age four or five. When her grandmother fell ill and could no longer care for her full-time, she went to live with her mother’s sister, who had three children of her own.
At about age 13, Ehli says she was already using drugs, drinking, having sex, smoking cigarettes and “thinking I was an adult.”
A year later, she was using methamphetamines on top of everything else, and one day her aunt grounded her for something—she doesn’t really remember what.
“Well, I wasn’t going to have that,” she says with a rueful laugh. “So I locked myself in my room, wrote a threatening note to my aunt, stuck it on my door, and called my sister to come and pick me up.”
She says she wanted the freedom of being an adult, but it had a high cost. Her step-sister was in active addiction—on methamphetamines—and was in the process of losing her children.
At that point Ehli moved in with her half-brother, but that lasted less than a year. While in high school, Ehli moved in with boyfriends, putting up with their violent behavior until she couldn’t stand it anymore, and then moving on. The first day of her senior year in high school, she was expelled and didn’t go back. She spiraled into another four years of drinking and drugging, living on the streets and in drug houses.
In 2013, after the house she was living in was raided, she fled, and for the first time, she says, she had nowhere to go.
“I had burned all my bridges,” she says.
With nothing but a rolling backpack, she walked into the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Spokane and, for the first time in a long time, she felt hope.
“I felt peace,” she says. “I felt hope … like my life was finally going to change. I lived there for about two months and then I heard about Anna Ogden Hall.”
Ehli spent the next two years at UGM’s Anna Ogden Hall, a free, long-term, grace-based recovery program for women. Its program deals with long-term recovery from addiction and addresses the underlying roots of childhood trauma.
Barbara Comito, spokeswoman for UGM, says the community typically knows UGM provides emergency help, meals and shelter for the homeless, but it also provides much more than that.
“We are seeking to deal with the underlying causes of trauma,” Comito says. “Our programs address issues through group therapy, individual therapy, life skills, job training and other programs to heal the wounds that are there.”
Bodies responding to trauma
Mark Baird, a clinical psychologist in Spokane and psychology professor at Whitworth University, says babies learn through primary caregivers whether the world is a safe place.
“If babies cry and someone takes steps to soothe the baby consistently, they learn that the world is a safe place,” Baird says. “When the person who cares for them actually abuses or neglects them, they learn that the world is an unsafe place, so they need to go it alone; they learn not to trust themselves, and that they’re in danger.”
The body responds to trauma by rallying to protect itself, he says.
“If we feel unsafe all the time (in fight, flight or freeze response) and unable to calm that part down, we’ll use other means of calming,” he says. “Excess drug and alcohol use, acting out sexually, work addiction, self-injury … there are all kinds of ways to soothe this alarm that’s going off all the time.
“The logical part of their brain has been hijacked by the lower brain that says ‘emergency.’ It’s not like they’re just going to stop their addiction because it works … it numbs the pain,” he says. “It’s like nothing is an emergency and everything is.”
While it can be disheartening to read about how childhood trauma affects a person over a lifetime, Baird says today “we know how to work with trauma.”
Healing the long-term effects of childhood trauma has become known as “trauma-informed care,” which focuses on a person’s experiences before trying to correct behavior—whether the behavior is juvenile delinquency, out-of-control anger, addiction or a plethora of other consequences of trauma.
Mental health specialists say working toward getting basic self-care in place is an important first step, as is working toward feeling comfortable seeking help when trust in caregivers has been broken.
“We can start exploring what’s been going on with the person whose first memory is of his dad holding a knife to his mom’s throat,” he says. “That’s why part of my job is educating and asking … do you ever feel this way? Suddenly you don’t know how you feel, or you can’t concentrate, or you feel numb. That’s the trauma. Because feeling numb was an effective way your mind used to cope. But now, it’s not effective anymore.”
There is truth to the old adage that knowledge is power. Once a person understands that their body and brain have been harmed by the biological impact of early emotional trauma science-based steps can be taken to remove the imprints that early adversity leaves on neurobiology.
One of the specific types of trauma-informed care treatments is called EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, Baird says.
EMDR is a potent form of psychotherapy that helps individuals to remember difficult experiences safely and relate those memories in ways that no longer cause pain in the present.
Yoga-based therapy for trauma
Other lesser-known treatment like trauma-based yoga also are gaining recognition, Baird says.
Anna Molgard, a Spokane yoga teacher and private yoga therapist who specializes in chronic pain and trauma resolution, has studied and trained under leading researchers and mental health therapists worldwide to use yoga in trauma recovery.
“Many times, people tell me that even after talk therapy, counseling and other treatment, they find the body is still responding to the trauma,” Molgard says. “We have to directly address that, giving the body some tangible tools so the thinking mind can come online. It may not have ever shut off (from the flight, fight freeze response) because the original trauma was such a dangerous situation.”
Molgard says when trauma happens to children who are too young to speak about it, it’s even more challenging.
“When it happens to young children who are preverbal, they don’t have words around it. So, it’s even more important to get to the body.”
Molgard says people are able to get their power back and are no longer highjacked by their own bodies. When people learn that rather than betraying them, their body is protecting itself and doing its job, it allows them to trust their bodies again, she says.
“It’s just beautiful to see these patterns that have been so ingrained—thinking and feeling like they’re a victim of their circumstances or someone else’s choices—letting these layers go after all these years,” she says. “It gives them power in their body and in other areas of their lives, and they do have the power to create change. It’s a shift from a victim (mentality) and it’s very authentic.”
Molgard says meeting people’s experience with awareness, kindness and tools to move forward is much different than putting trauma aside or negating it.
“I love my work. It’s really sacred to me. I consider it an honor watching the shackles fall away; it’s just beautiful.”
Samantha Ehli says it wasn’t until the anniversary of her parents’ deaths on Nov. 9 last year that she starting thinking about what had really happened on that day in 1995.
She felt compelled to find her father’s grave, which she discovered at Holy Cross Cemetery.
“During that process I came across the newspaper article, and that was the first time I really saw the truth with my own eyes,” Ehli says. “That clarified a lot for me.”
Five years ago, Ehli says she couldn’t have pictured where she is today.
Married to her husband for three years, Ehli has stayed clean and sober since March 20, 2013 and has found peace and tranquility in her God and her church, she says.
“God redeemed me from brokenness,” she adds. “He’s using my story because there’s so many people out there who don’t think there’s a way out. At the very end, you don’t have to be stuck anymore. There is a way out.”
Judith Spitzer is an independent journalist, content writer and photographer. She can be reached at jaspit[email protected]