HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- To watch Ava Miles play in 2022, you would never know what rested inside the Henrico five-year-old's tiny body. But right around her hip is a lasting reminder of what happened on July 15th, 2020.
"She was three, innocent and carefree," Ava's mother Keierra Lucas said.
Lucas and her two daughters were asleep inside an apartment on O Street in Church Hill around midnight when it all happened.
"It was like a machine gun going off. Scared the life out of me. Mother's instinct was to get to my children, I didn't care about the consequence, I just needed to get to my kids," Lucas said.
Gunfire from outside made its way into Ava's room.
"I heard her screaming. I think it was just an I'm scared, kind of scream, so I ran to her in the dark. She was soaked in blood from her waist down," Lucas said.
The surgeon opted not to remove the bullet.
"It will do more damage to surgically remove it for her," Lucas said.
Her story is all too common in Central Virginia with many other children not as fortunate.
"We have lost a six-month-old. The children are in the way and they are the innocent victims and something must be done," Dr. Jeffrey Haynes, the head of the Children's Trauma Center at the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU, said.
Haynes said that hospital data showed the number of kids 14 years old and younger who were the victims of firearm injuries increased by 25% in 2019 with another 25% increase in 2020 and yet another 25% in 2021.
He said ten years ago, nearly all the gunshot victims the Children's Hospital treated were related to safety events.
"In other words, finding the gun unprotected but loaded and the child shoots themselves or someone else. Now we see twice as many violence-related events where the children are in the wrong place at the wrong time," Haynes said.
In those shootings, the likelihood of death is much higher.
"Bullets are just destructive and any sort of central injury to the chest or abdomen can cause the loss of life of the child. Yes, that's the sad truth," Haynes said.
Children who do survive carry a heavy mental burden.
"They need individual therapy, family therapy, community support, support in schools," Brittany Kiefer, Clinical Pediatric Surgery and Pediatric Trauma Social Worker at the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU said.
"For her, she associated sleep with I'm going to get hurt so she wouldn't sleep or sleep by herself for a long time," Lucas said.
Making matters worse for her family, the police never charged anyone in Ava's case.
"We never got any follow-up from police, detectives, nobody reached back out to us. My number's been the same," Lucas said.
Ava's mom now has a message for those who catch innocent children in the crossfire.
"When you're randomly shooting, bullets don't have a name. It could be a three-month-old, a three-year-old, a ten-year-old. It doesn't matter. It's still somebody's baby that you're putting their life in jeopardy," Lucas said.
Richmond Police said they are still actively investigating Ava's case.
They added it would be helpful if the public could provide more information by calling Crime Stoppers at 804-780-1000.