JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — As media descended on a chaotic scene following Summer Wells’ June 15, 2021 disappearance and law enforcement searched Hawkins County’s Beech Creek area, three boys wondered anxiously about what would happen.
They were Summer’s older brothers, ages 12, 9 and 7 at the time. Those are ages when processing traumatic events and grief is even more difficult than it is for adults, a marriage and family therapist told WFXR’s sister station, WJHL, on Wednesday.
“Children are often the forgotten grievers,” Julie Burks said. “People don’t recognize that (children’s coping) as something that a child is grieving, so they will act out with anger, misbehavior, things that you would think, ‘why are they acting that way?’”
After the trauma of Summer’s disappearance, her brothers’ difficulties weren’t over.
In the days immediately following the disappearance, church friends tried to keep the boys’ spirits up amid the spotlight’s glare on the family and what one family friend described as negativity from people online and in person.
David Dotson told WJHL of taking the boys to play miniature golf in Kingsport to give them a break from the busy scene around their home as search and rescue teams and agents combed the property. Dotson mentioned someone there “that made a comment that wasn’t very polite.”
As if that trauma weren’t sufficient, about six weeks later, the brothers would be removed from their parents’ care by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and placed in state custody.
Burks said professionals describe multiple emotional blows as “complex trauma.” Children typically can’t be expected to process and share their emotions the same way adults do.
“I can tell you, ‘my heart’s broken, I’m feeling sad, or I’m really ticked off’ because you know I’m missing this person or whatever,” Burks said. “A child doesn’t always have the tools yet or experience of life to understand in how to cope with that in a healthy way.”
She said that lack of full development makes therapy all the more important.
“Play therapy is excellent for young children,” Burks said. “I get the kids doing that kind of stuff in my sessions when they’re dealing with this kind of loss, and it helps them to feel like they are able to express themselves in ways they can’t verbally.”
The length of time needed varies depending on the child and the type of trauma suffered, Burks said. She said studies have shown the brain’s frontal lobe can develop differently as a result of childhood trauma, with long-term effects possible without treatment.
In addition to emotional difficulties, children in such cases can be more susceptible to later physical diseases including heart ailments, diabetes and obesity.
The good news is that with the right therapy and enough of it, children can emerge into emotionally and physically healthy adult lives.
“When they have completed trauma work, they are able to be very resilient and move forward and know that these things have happened, but it really turns things around for them,” Burks said.
In the Wells brothers’ case, accessing the needed care may be difficult. Many providers, including Burks’, don’t accept TennCare because of low reimbursement rates. Non-profit agencies like Frontier Health provide care the best they can but are often overloaded with clients.
“They don’t have the time or the resources to give the necessary care to them. I know clinicians that work there, and they may see a client once a month.”
In cases of complex trauma, Burks said that’s not usually enough.
“I would say at least weekly. There are times when they need to be in a higher level of care, two or three times a week, so places like Youth Villages oftentimes are places that children go to for those types of needs.”
With juvenile records closed to the public, there’s no way to know what level of counseling or care the brothers are receiving and whether it is or isn’t adequate considering their needs, Burks said. The publicity that’s surrounded the case leaves the boys’ caregivers with an extra burden, but one she hopes they can bear.
“They need to be protective of them so that they’re not approached or talked to about what they’ve experienced, and I think that they need people to just realize that they need some space,” Burks said.
“They need to be able to heal from this and (people should) show some compassion and recognize that this has not been easy for them. They’ve not only lost a sibling, they’ve lost their parents, their family, what they’ve always known. You know those things are really tough for a child to lose.”