A 6-year-old was shot while sitting in a car with his father and another man in Southwest Philadelphia Wednesday night. The boy’s father, Joshua Butts, 28, would later die at Penn Presbyterian after suffering wounds to the chest and torso.
The boy, who The Philadelphia Inquirer reported is awake, will have to undergo a second surgery because of wounds to his stomach and lower back.
Victim advocates who work with children and teens who have lost a loved one to gun violence, or have been shot themselves, say the impact left by just this one shooting goes beyond the three people in the car.
“The tentacles are so far-reaching,” said Emily DeCarlo, Youth Violence Outreach Program Director with the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia.
DeCarlo said beyond family members, the boy’s teachers, friends from sports or other extracurriculars, his religious community, if he has one — these are all people who will be impacted by the shooting in a very real way.
“We could get four, five, six, or 25 referrals from this because you have a whole class of peers who are struggling now with the fact that their classmate was shot,” DeCarlo said.
DeCarlo said these referrals would only add to a growing list of people in need of services in South and Southwest Philly alone. On a day like Wednesday, there were two other fatal shootings, including one in which a 16-year-old was fatally shot, each adding to the large and growing number of people experiencing grief and trauma in the city.
To date, there have been 145 homicides, a 32% increase from the same time last year. More than 540 people have been shot in the city this year, including more than 50 people under the age of 18.
“But this is one 6-year-old boy in the community, and if there’s another and another, it’s incredibly challenging to overcome so many of these experiences for our youth,” said DeCarlo.
Since July 2020, DeCarlo said the AVP has received close to 400 referrals for children’s counseling alone, of which roughly 70% are seeking help after witnessing community violence or losing someone in a homicide. DeCarlo expects the wait list of children and adults seeking counseling to reach 200 by July, an all-time high for the group and a result of the city’s rise in homicides.
With only five full-time therapists, DeCarlo said there’s also a wait for some of these services. Demand has increased in the past year due to an overlay of many issues affecting Philadelphia, including the opioid epidemic and the pandemic.
“We may have had somebody who lost an uncle to gun violence, a grandparent to [coronavirus], a parent to suicide, and a sibling to an overdose,” said DeCarlo. “So we’re seeing kids who are experiencing trauma on multiple levels.”
Resources for grieving children, families
These compounding issues are why the Uplift Center for Grieving Children launched its Philly HopeLine last year, in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, after the pandemic reached the region. Darcy Walker Krause, the center’s executive director, said the hotline can be used by students and families who are struggling with the pandemic or if they’ve lost someone in the past year. There are Spanish speakers available and there are LGBTQ hours as well.
Still, Krause says there are ways parents can help their children in the grieving process should that child lose a peer or someone else they know, or hear of a peer losing a parent.
“It’s important to talk in a developmentally appropriate way because, for instance, when the kids are young, they don’t understand,” said Krause. “If you say, ‘They’ve gone to a better place,’ the kids like, ‘Well, where’s a better place?’”
Instead, Krause suggests using age-appropriate, concrete terms to explain a person has died. Answering some questions is welcome, said Krause, as is showing some emotion and expressing sadness.
Both Krause and DeCarlo said there’s no real timeline for how long children exposed to gun violence and death will need counseling. Depending on the layers of trauma and grief they’re dealing with, some children finish counseling in three months, while others need the support for years.
But Krause said when a young person experiences the loss of a loved one at a young age, grief can become a lifelong process.
“Some kids don’t get the permanency of death at 6,” said Krause. “Then, as you get a little bit older … there’s an event where there are a lot of dads present and you’re like maybe 10, you notice that you’re different. Like, you don’t have that parent there like that these other kids have. Then graduation and then weddings, and these things they travel along in developmental phases as we develop … even as adults.”
Krause said giving young people the tools to address their feelings is one way to make the process easier.
In Philadelphia, groups like EMIR Healing Center and Network of Neighbors Responding to Violence are part of a network of organizations that offer support as children and caregivers deal with their traumas and grief.
Still, DeCarlo and other gun violence prevention advocates have said the city could be doing more to prevent shootings in the first place.
Last Saturday, organizers demanded the city invest $100 million in the upcoming budget for gun violence prevention efforts. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, however, proposed giving these efforts a $18.7 million boost for a total of $35.5 million directed to anti-violence programming, if approved by council.
Find a list of resources for people affected by gun violence here.
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