Crime & Justice

Experts say gunman's son needs continued support after Seal Beach shooting

Scott Dekraai's home near Seal Beach where he lived with his young son.
Scott Dekraai's home near Seal Beach where he lived with his young son.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Thursday night, police and city officials in Seal Beach will hold another town hall meeting on the salon shooting that took eight lives.

The Seal Beach community has struggled publicly to shake away the pain of the murders. In private, the 8-year-old son of accused gunman Scott Dekraai is doing the same.

The boy was the focus of an angry custody fight between Dekraai and his ex-wife. Investigators say Dekraai shot her first to begin his rampage while his son was at school barely a mile away.

Experts say the youngster can heal from the worst shooting in Orange County history, but he'll need continued support.

Psychologist Ginger Clark directs the University of Southern California’s marriage and family therapy program. She said children like Dekraai’s son — kids that have gone through enormous traumas — feel angry, sad and very alone.

“Even when the extended family rallies around them, it’s hard for them to know, 'is it OK to trust people?'" Clark said. "'Because these folks who I always believed were here to protect me and take care of me have now sort of betrayed me and left me.'"

There are still adults in the boy’s life — teachers, coaches, new caregivers, the parents of friends. Psychiatrist Anand Pandya said they should decide now how to protect the youngster from cruel talk.

“Even as unusual as his last name is, even as big a media story as this is, this is not necessarily going to be the defining moment in his life," Pandya said.

Pandya heads the psychiatry department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He’s counseled the close relatives of murderers.

He said the Dekraai boy probably doesn’t need to know every detail of his father’s criminal case now. Pandya said as the son grows up, he’ll form his own opinions.

University of California Irvine criminology professor Sara Wakefield, who’s writing a book about children with fathers in jail, said the kids that bounce back don’t take the blame for what their parents did.

“He’s going to have to figure out what story to tell that distances himself from his father, but is honest about what that relationship is," she said. "Even if you move, I mean that’s a story you have to figure out how to tell to yourself and to others.”

But how do you explain to, say, your prom date, about a shooting like this? USC psychologist Clark had an idea.

“You say, yeah it was a tragedy. I know it was devastating for me and the rest of my family," Clark said, "and to just be honest about the vulnerability that it created and to remind people that he was a survivor and a victim, too."

The Seal Beach community has reached out to those who lost loved ones in the shooting. Clark hopes they’ll treat DeKaraai’s son the same way, "which is with love and tenderness and kindness, and give him the space he needs to heal and grieve, and that this doesn’t change the way they feel about him or the rest of his family.”

Clark said the continued support of his extended family is crucial so the boy can heal and grow.