Rising gun violence against pregnant women of color in Philly is taking a toll

Habiba “Debbie” Hayes had just gotten the keys to a new rowhouse and was driving to announce the good news to her family when a text flashed on her phone from her daughter. She decided to look at it later.

Hayes would be seeing her soon at the family gathering.

Both home-health care professionals, Hayes and her daughter, Shaliyah Davis, had plans to move in together and start their own business at the new home in Southwest Philadelphia.

It was a new beginning for both of them. Davis told her mom she was going to leave her boyfriend that very day. She was four months pregnant.

As Hayes pulled into her brother’s driveway, he came rushing out.

Shaliyah, he told her, had been shot.

That can’t be right, Hayes told herself. She looked at the text from her daughter some 15 minutes earlier, at 2:16 p.m., July 16, 2020. It read: “Are you on your phone?”

They raced to their sister-in-law’s block on West Berks Street, which the police had cordoned off with yellow tape.

Her daughter had been shot in the head. Doctors at Temple University Hospital were unable to save her and her unborn child.

With one gunshot and 15 minutes, Hayes’ entire world changed.

“They snatched everything from me,” the 42-year-old said.

The likelihood that Philadelphia shooting victims are women has soared 62% in the last seven years, from 8% of all shootings in 2015 to 13% so far in 2022.

» READ MORE: Lives Under Fire: a revealing story of Philadelphia’s gun violence crisis

Since 2020, when the pandemic and social unrest upended violent crime patterns, 659 women have been shot in Philadelphia. More than 100 of them died.

In nine out of 10 of these shootings of women, records show the victims were Black or Latino women of childbearing age, defined as 12 to 55. Already this year, 10 women or girls under age 30 have been killed in city shootings. The youngest was 16.

And while the true number of pregnant women wounded or killed by gun violence is not precisely known, an Inquirer analysis of hospital records and news accounts has identified at least a dozen such tragedies since 2020.

Among them:

♦ Matayah Haynes, a 19-year-old from Camden, was found shot in the head in the Port Richmond neighborhood on June 4. She was 34 weeks pregnant. Her baby — a boy named Ry’Kier — was saved, but the young mother-to-be didn’t survive.

In her obituary, Haynes was described as kindhearted, outspoken, and hardworking. She loved cooking and shopping for her son — whom she affectionately referred to as Critter. Haynes also left behind her parents and 10 siblings.

♦ Ishan Charmidah Rahman was sitting with her fiancé in their minivan in North Philadelphia on Feb. 21, 2020, when a bullet struck her chest, killing her. She was six months pregnant.

Doctors performed an emergency cesarean section, but the unborn child didn’t survive. Rahman left behind five children. A man has been charged in the shooting.

♦ Jessica Covington was unloading gifts from her car on Palmetto Street in Crescentville on Nov. 20, 2021, when bullets struck her head and stomach. Seven months pregnant, the 32-year-old had just returned from her baby shower. A few minutes after arriving at Einstein Medical Center, she and her unborn child were pronounced dead.

At the time, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said: “This heinous crime has sent shock waves throughout the country, and also highlights the intentional lack of regard that we are seeing for humanity.”

The city offered a $50,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest. It remains unclaimed.

Experts say the rising number of women being shot is a troubling trend.

“Seeing the traditionally vulnerable population of children and women becoming victims tells you the sense of security is just totally lost,” said Chidinma Nwakanma, an emergency medicine doctor at Penn Presbyterian Hospital. “That loss of safety and security is debilitating in a community — even the ones among us who are supposed to be protected are not.”

Nearly half of female firearm homicide victims were killed by a current or former intimate partner, according to FBI research.

Hayes, a mother of four, said the murder of her daughter and unborn grandchild sank her into depression. She was just 14 when she had Shaliyah, her first born. They became best friends. She said her daughter loved to drop into her house in North Philadelphia. She’d sing DMX’s “How’s It Goin’ Down” and Hayes would make her favorite meals, mac and cheese and London broil.

The impact of gun death washes over an extended community. Shaliyah Davis was a daughter with a father, an older sister, a niece with multiple cousins, grandparents, girlfriends, a community of hundreds that came out to mourn at the time of her death.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia’s gun violence has been concentrated in several dozen blocks, leaving behind a terrible level of fear and trauma among a fraction of its residents.

Nwakanma has become accustomed, over her five years at Penn Presbyterian, to the steady stream of young men being rushed into her trauma bay with gunshot wounds. So far this year, there have been more than 1,200 shootings.

But over the last two years, she’s been seeing what The Inquirer’s analysis shows: a lot more victims are women and girls.

“Black women are the backbone of the Black community,” she said. “When you have a patient come in, the first thing most of them say is, ‘Where’s my mother?’ And the thing health-care workers will tell you they remember most is the scream of the mother. That scream — that’s the thing people can’t get out of their minds.”

For many women of childbearing age in Philadelphia, stress is heightened by the knowledge that maternity outcomes for people of color are stacked against them.

Black women are four times as likely as white women to die of pregnancy-related causes. Now rising gun violence against women is an added layer.

“The added stressor of trauma will compound all that,” Nwakanma said. “We’re going to see a ripple effect of this as the number of women gun violence victims increases.”

As the trauma outreach manager at Temple University Hospital, Scott Charles meets the men and women whose lives have been impacted by this rise in gun violence nearly every day.

There used to be a code on the streets of Philadelphia: Women and children are off-limits, he said.

But that understanding has broken down over time, he said. As an older generation — particularly older Black men — were incarcerated, the younger generation was left without mentors and guidance.

“We removed the people who used to hold that line,” Charles said. “What was left behind is the generation of young men who hadn’t any kind of sense of what’s normal … so what you ended up with were young men in particular who were essentially writing their own social codes, their own norms. Guns became a critical feature of that.”

Shaliyah Hayes’ death still rocks the people she left behind. Her mom wears T-shirts with her face printed on them. She started a podcast dedicated to telling her story.

A 31-year-old Philadelphian named Anthony R. Williams has been charged with the murder of her daughter and her unborn child, and multiple other gun-related offenses. He awaits trial. His defense attorney declined to comment.

High school friends have organized a fund-raiser in honor of Shaliyah Davis on July 17 at the Rolling Thunder Skating Center in Mayfair.

While gun violence continues to rise, her close friends and family are still posting in her memory on social media with the hashtag: #justiceforshaliyah.

“There’s a lot of people who love her,” her mother said.

Staff writers Dylan Purcell and Sarah Gantz contributed to this article.

>>READ “UNDER FIRE,” an Inquirer series about Philadelphia’s gun violence crisis, recently named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting.

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