Principals, social workers, experts and advocates pushed for community and school-based counseling services as the city reopens during a surge in gun violence
PHILADELPHIA—City Councilmembers heard demands to invest in universal trauma counseling for young people at a Council hearing jointly hosted by the Committee on Children & Youth, and the Special Committee on Gun Violence, chaired by Councilmembers Helen Gym (At-Large) and Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District) respectively. Principals explained how trauma impacts school communities, social workers told stories of families in need of counseling, and experts outlined the positive effects that trauma counseling has on communities and schools.
Over 56 percent of the student shooting victims are enrolled in just 25 public schools, according to data that the school district presented to Councilmembers. In 2020, Philadelphia recorded 499 homicides, one of the highest one-year totals in the city’s history. The trend has continued in 2021, and many of the people who have been shot or killed are minors. Each shooting in Philadelphia is devastating to the victims, family members, friends, neighbors, and classmates who all suffer trauma from shootings.
Gun violence is just one type of trauma described as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs are traumatic events that happen in childhood and increase people’s risk of future violence, both as victims and as perpetrators. According to a survey conducted by The Philadelphia ACE Project in 2013, almost 7 of 10 adults in Philadelphia had experienced at least one ACE in their lifetime and 1 of 5 had experienced four or more ACEs.
The pervasiveness of gun violence and other ACEs demonstrates the need for an expanded, integrated approach to childhood trauma that ensures universal access to trauma counseling for all young people. The trauma response established as a best-practice has the potential to heal emotional and psychological wounds, and prevent further violence and trauma.
The hearing was held a day after Councilmember Gym organized a listening session for young people impacted by gun violence. Young people spoke of the profound harm violence and trauma causes to their mental health and future wellbeing, and suggested the City invest in culturally competent trauma therapy, mentorship, living wage jobs, daytime and evening programs for youth, and relocation for residents who experienced gun violence. The session was attended by Councilmembers Johnson (2nd District), Isaiah Thomas (At-Large), Kendra Brooks (At-Large), Jamie Gauthier (3rd District), Katherine Gilmore Richardson (At-Large), and Mark Squilla (1st District).
“Today’s hearing shows that if we want to deal with gun violence we must provide support for helping young people address the trauma that disruption and violence inflict on them, their families, and their communities,” said Councilmember Gym (At-Large), Chair of the Children & Youth Committee. “It’s clear that we have to re-orient our institutions around a trauma-centered approach to serving youth. I would like to see the School District expand the social workers and STEP support teams in every public school. We need concentrated supports in the two dozen or so schools where a number of students have been deeply impacted by gun violence. And youth need stable trusting relationships with adults helping them through this process, as educators, as mentors, and as health professionals. I am committed to ensuring that this budget process invests in giving the youth the resources they need to recover and rebuild.”
“Each shooting in Philadelphia is devastating to the victims,” said Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District), Chair of the Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention. “Family members, friends, neighbors, and classmates suffer vicarious trauma from shootings. Universal access to trauma resources and counseling for Philadelphia’s children has the potential to not only heal emotional and psychological wounds but also prevent further violence and other trauma in the future. I am happy to partner with Councilmember Helen Gym, Chair of Council’s Children and Youth Committee, for this important hearing and I look forward to working with her on other issues in the future.”
Dr. Jill Bowen, Commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), described the City’s current services available for individuals and communities suffering the trauma of violence.
“DBHIDS is committed to creating a more trauma-informed system of care by promoting trauma-informed practices, policies, and environments,” said Dr. Jill Bowen, Commissioner of DBHIDS. “Exposure to adverse childhood experiences and prolonged trauma can significantly negatively affect people’s life trajectories. Through awareness, prevention, early identification, community supports, resilience and skill building; and through connections to trauma treatment; together we can all work to reduce these traumatic events and their impacts, so that Philadelphians affected by trauma can get their life trajectories back on track, so that all Philadelphians can thrive.”
Caroline Menapace Glavin, a Trauma Assessment Specialist with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Violence Intervention Program, cited the hospital’s findings that children who lived closest to gun violence were more likely to have emergency department visits for mental and behavioral health issues in the weeks after those incidents.
“Trauma-focused therapy works, when done by well-intentioned, well-trained practitioners,” said Caroline Menapace Glavin, a Trauma Assessment Specialist with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Violence Intervention Program. “But unfortunately, in our current landscape, the need is outpacing the available services when it comes to mental health support; there is a necessity for more readily available trauma therapy and services in addition to what’s already being provided.”
“Counselors and climate managers are those same individuals I call to do grief counseling, to do home visits when we experience something such as 3 murdered students in 5 months,” said Dr. Kahlila Lee, principal at Overbrook. “We need more caring adults to build trusting relationships with our youth and families, who can not only respond to violence, but engage and mentor young people towards opportunities and relationships that avoid and prevent gun violence.”
Kathleen Reeves, Senior Associate Dean of Health Equity at Temple University, said when the University partnered with the City to study a public health approach to gun violence, it found 2.5 fewer shootings per 10,000 people per month. For every dollar spent on social services to prevent gun violence, the City saved $32 in other costs associated with shootings.
“This science is as clear as the research that was done decades ago linking high cholesterol to heart disease,” said Kathleen Reeves, Senior Associate Dean of Health Equity at Temple University. “If we want Philadelphia children and Philadelphia neighborhoods to be safe, we must create trauma informed, healing centered neighborhoods. We must provide them with safe places filled with people that understand childhood trauma. We must treat children who suffer from trauma as children who have had bad things happen to them. They are not bad children.”
“The same zip codes with high percentages of poverty and shootings also have high percentages of people unemployed, without high school diplomas and young people not enrolled in school and not employed,” said Kimberly Gray, a social worker and Executive Director of Change Point Behavioral Health. “The evidence is clear, the root cause of the City’s gun violence are the social determinants of health, in conjunction with untreated trauma.”
Watch the hearing on Council’s YouTube channel: