Philly’s kids are grieving alone from the far-reaching trauma of gun violence, advocates say
Many more children in Philadelphia have witnessed or experienced violence. Too often, however, they remain unsupported, advocates say.
Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic is creating a new generation of victims: youth left to grief alone.
The toll of recent days showcases the issue. On Monday, a 14-year-old boy was charged with murder in the shooting of Tiffany Fletcher, a mother of three who was struck by a stray bullet Friday afternoon while working at the Mill Creek Recreation Center. Also last weekend, 17-year-old Teryn Johnson was shot and killed while walking her dog in Frankford.
Youth advocates and city leaders on Tuesday discussed the impact of gun violence at an online roundtable event hosted by the Philadelphia chapter of the Transition Network Giving Circle, a philanthropic group of professional women, as part of a yearlong focus on the well-being of children.
“We have to recognize violence is a cycle,” said Kendra Van de Water, the executive director of YEAH Philly, a nonprofit that works with teens in West and Southwest Philadelphia who have been affected by violence.
She questions those who make distinctions between “victims” and “perpetrator.” Research suggests that many of the people who engage in violence have been victims of violence themselves.
Nearly 160 children and teens under the age of 18 have been shot in Philadelphia this year, a rate similar to 2021. Of those, more than 20 died. The vast majority are Black. The youngest was a baby girl who had yet to celebrate her first birthday.
Many more children in Philadelphia have witnessed violence. A 2021 study by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that a shooting increased the number of emergency department visits for mental health complaints for children in the surrounding blocks for weeks.
Too often, however, they remain unsupported.
“Having a space for young people who are going through things to be able to talk about it with their peers is very, very important,” Van de Water said.
Reuben Jones, who works with young people affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, said other communities do a better job of making sure students get grief counseling after being exposed to gun violence.
The teens he works with, predominantly in North Philadelphia, are expected to show up the next day to school as if nothing happened, he told attendees.
“A lot of the young people in the schools across Philadelphia have not been offered that opportunity to properly grieve,” said Jones, executive director of Frontline Dads.
Gun violence reached record levels in 2021 and the pace hasn’t relented this year. Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, who moderated the discussion, said authorities have to recognize that such violence makes Philadelphia an outlier compared with other cities.
“We are no longer reflective of national trends,” she said.
That means many young people in Philadelphia are grieving — often without support.
The Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that provides services to people affected by violence, noticed a dramatic increase in the number of young people who reached out for counseling between 2020 and 2021, said executive director Natasha McGlynn. She said that while communities of color are disproportionately affected by the trauma, the entire city is harmed.
“The trauma within our city is far reaching,” McGlynn said.
In addition to mental health support, roundtable participants discussed the need for safe and comfortable spaces for young people such as recreation centers and well-maintained schools. Nearly 100 schools had to close early on the second day of the school year because of a heat emergency.
Monet, a high school junior and participant in Philly YEAH who only shared her first name when addressing the group, described feeling brushed off when she sought support from public resources.
She said many recreation centers shut down during the pandemic or are understaffed. When she did reach out, she found staff to be unhelpful. Sometimes she just needed someone to listen.
“People don’t have resources for teens and young adults. It’s always just questions,” she said.