The San Bernardino, California, shooting today was shocking in its scale, with at least 14 deaths being reported by the police as of this afternoon. But the attack is especially devastating because of its target: the Inland Regional Center, a nonprofit that offers therapy and other services to developmentally disabled children in the region.
It's a dull name for an organization that is a lifeline for families of disabled kids. The state-run charity sends caseworkers and therapists to the homes of young people with autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and other intellectual disabilities. They provide physical therapy, counseling, in-home care, and job training for disabled teens—all at no cost to their clients. The center serves 31,000 people in San Bernardino and Riverside counties in Southern California, and is the largest organization of its kind in the state, according to its website.
Marybeth Feild, the center's CEO, told the Los Angeles Times that shooters opened fire in the facility's conference room around 11 a.m.
The parents and siblings of several children who have been treated there told me that they couldn't understand why anyone would want to attack the IRC.
Stephanie Gomez said a speech therapy caseworker from the center had helped her two developmentally disabled brothers learn how to communicate with the world. One brother "stuttered, his words were jumbled up, you couldn't really understand him," Gomez said in a phone interview. "Now he can talk better, he can actually communicate with his friends and teachers." The caseworker also helped Gomez's mother, who doesn't speak English, translate school documents and stay in touch with her son's teachers.
The caseworker they worked with was scheduled to come to Gomez's house for a session this afternoon. She called Gomez's mother just 20 minutes before the first reports of the shooting came out, and the family hasn't been able to reach her since.
"We're shocked," Gomez said. "What they do is really impactful."
Parents said the center has been a safety net for them while they dealt with the challenges of raising a disabled kid. Kari Fobar said her son Joshua, 10, who has a traumatic brain injury, has been making use of the center's services since he was just 15 months old. Employees from the center would come to their house for physical and behavioral therapy.
They'd also offer respite care, sending a worker to their house to take care of Joshua when Fobar and her husband had to leave. "Sometimes—well, all the time—it's very challenging having a child with disabilities," Fobar, who lives in Riverside, said. "It gives you kind of a break, even if it's just a few hours."
"It's really sad and horrible and disgusting to think that anybody would go in and shoot anybody, but especially people with disabilities," she added.
Kareem Gongora, who lives in the nearby city of Fontana, said the treatment his 21-month-old daughter has received at the center has made a "huge difference." She was born premature—at just 33 weeks—and with physical therapy has built up her weak arm and leg muscles.
Gongora is a member of a group that advocates for people with disabilities that meets weekly in the same conference room where the shooting was reported to have started. He said that he hasn't been able to get in touch with his daughter's therapist, who was scheduled to be at the center for a weeklong conference.
"It's devastating," he said. "You think about the parents and the families that will find out that their loved ones are lost, and you don't wish that on anyone."
He said the time was "long past" for stricter gun control laws. "This is going to make people to come together," Gongora predicted. "Everyone here's going to be praying."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.