In the uproar over police shootings, gun violence and race are children forgotten?

Jul 13, 2016

Photo courtesy of Huffington Post.

Photo courtesy of Huffington Post.

The tragic shootings in Minnesota, Louisiana and Texas have again focused the nation’s attention on race, excessive use of police force and sensible gun laws.

But what about the nation’s children and gun violence? Are we overlooking them?

Excluding gun-related incidents by law enforcement officers, almost 33,000 Americans die from gun violence each year. And many children are either victims of gun violence or suffer psychological trauma from being a witness to such horrific events.

The impact on children of witnessing a mass shooting or single victim shooting is immeasurable. We need only to imagine the emotional trauma inflicted on Dae’Anna Reynolds, the four-year-old daughter of Minnesota shooting victim Philando Castile’s girlfriend.

Dae'Anna Reynolds. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Dae’Anna Reynolds. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Dae’Anna not only saw the shooting of someone she knew intimately. She also saw a policeman point a gun at her mother Diamond, saw her mother taken away in handcuffs, and had to comfort a distraught Diamond Reynolds as she grieved Castile’s death.

“It’s okay. I’m right here with you,” Dae’Anna said to her mother.

Dae’Anna will carry the pain of that trauma for the rest of her life.

If we consider the number of children who were schoolmates and relatives of the 21 children gunned down in the Newtown massacre, as well as those who saw media accounts of that mass shooting, the scope of the risk of early childhood trauma becomes apparent.

If we further consider the children who are relatives or close acquaintances of the 21,334 men and women who commit suicide each year; and the children who are impacted by the thousands of people who die from gunshots in our inner cities, the picture becomes that much more clear. It is not unreasonable to suggest that literally millions of American’s children are at-risk for early childhood trauma due to direct or indirect exposure to gun violence.

In a study on gun violence in Philadelphia by The Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, the level of violence in Philadelphia (and other cities like Chicago) was compared to the war in Afghanistan.

The 275 murders in Chicago in 2013 exceeded the number of soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan during the same time period. Every weekend someone dies in Chicago from gun violence. The researchers emphasize that children are not equipped to handle such stress without intervention. Doctors state that those who experience violence – children and adults – must have access to trauma treatment.

Social workers who are trained to provide trauma-informed interventions and services are already aware of the need to assess children who are exposed to gun violence for indications of trauma-related symptoms and behaviors. Clinicians also have to take into account the risk for trauma in children due to the constant and sensationalized media coverage of mass murders such as those in Charleston, SC, Orlando and Dallas.

It is important to reaffirm NASW’s commitment to participate with other public health stakeholders in working to prevent gun violence and to greatly reduce incidents if mortality and morbidity stemming from gun shots. NASW is also committed to advancing and trauma informed practice that incorporates content that reflect the impact of gun violence on early childhood trauma.

By Mel Wilson, MBA, LCSW NASW Social Justice and Human Rights Manager