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Grief counselors in short supply with gun violence rising

Brett Roman Williams lost his father and brother to shootings. Now, he’s on the board of a grief counseling group that once helped him. But it can’t keep up with the need.

Brett Roman Williams holds a pillow with a photo of his father Donald Williams and brother Derrick Williams, shot to death 20 years apart in Philadelphia.
Brett Roman Williams holds a pillow with a photo of his father Donald Williams and brother Derrick Williams, shot to death 20 years apart in Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke / AP

PHILADELPHIA — As Brett Roman Williams stood at the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office staring at a photo of his older brother’s face, a familiar feeling welled in his chest.

Williams’ father was shot and killed in 1996, when Williams was 11, and the ebb and flow of grief had washed over him for 20 years.

But, in 2016, when his brother was shot to death, Williams reached out to a grief counselor to help him cope.

Now, Williams serves on the board for the organization where he once sought solace. He’s trying to provide that same kind of support to others. But the demand is far outpacing the supply of counselors because of rising violence.

With more than 270 homicides in Philadelphia the first half of 2021, the city has been outpacing the number of killings in 2020, when 499 people were killed, mostly shot to death gunfire — the highest homicide numbers in more than two decades. The number of people wounded in shootings also has soared the past 18 months.

Williams is chairman of the board for the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia, which provides counseling to people affected by violence. He said there were 174 people on the waitlist at the end of June, compared with about 30 people a year ago.

“Hurt people, hurt people,” Williams said. “And this is a pivotal moment in Philly, because there are a lot of people hurting in this city right now.”

Natasha McGlynn, the organization’s executive director, said the agency has provided counseling since September to 425 teenagers who were shot or who have lost family or friends. She said counselors are seeing layers of trauma and revictimization as gun violence increases.

Crime has been rising nationwide after it plummeted in the early months of the pandemic, with many cities seeing the type of double-digit increase in gun violence that’s plaguing Philadelphia. The Biden administration has sent strike forces to Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to help take down gun networks.

Biden has encouraged states to use COVID-19 relief money to hire police or additional counselors. Philadelphia is among the cities joining a federal effort to expand and enhance community violence interruption programs. Williams’ group and others that provide counseling to victims are applying for grants to hire more counselors.

Lynn Linde, chief knowledge and learning officer for the American Counseling Association, said there already was a shortage of mental health professionals, especially in rural areas, when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Add the economic, emotional and other losses from the pandemic and lockdown, and now waves of gun violence across the country, and, Linde said, most mental health professionals are stretched to their limit.

“I don’t know anyone who has openings,” she said. “And there are a lot of mental health professionals who are working extra hours and just burning out.”

For the counselors at places such as Philadelphia’s AVP, who treat only people experiencing trauma and loss from violence, the rise in violent crime is the reason they are stretched thin.

There were more than 1,800 people in Philadelphia shot and wounded last year. The city already has reported close to 900 gunshot victims in 2021 — 150 more than the same time in 2020.

Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA, a statewide nonprofit group, said people are aware of the killings but less often the other effects of the violence: the lifelong injuries, the trauma, the fear that forces parents to keep their children indoors.

“We are missing all the damage underneath that is permanently altering the lives of so many people,” Garber said.

Elinore Kaufman, assistant professor of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Presbyterian Medical Center of Philadelphia, said there are two times to three times more gunshot survivors than fatalities at her trauma center. The number of survivors has increased as trauma treatment has improved.

“The goal is to help people to survive, and we’re very good at that part,” Kaufman said. “We get people through that most acute time. We are not as good at helping people get back to a full and complete life.”

She said the hospital is working on a program to provide patients with a peer mentor to help them connect to programs that offer help including counseling, applying for victims’ assistance or finding education and a new career if their injuries prevent them from returning to their jobs.

Latrice Felix’s son Alan Womack, Jr. chose to live in an upscale suburb of Philadelphia, spending most of his time at the gym or with family, in part to avoid the violence he saw in the city.

But Womack, 28, was killed on Feb. 28, 2020, during a fight outside of his gym. Felix signed up for counseling at AVP shortly after her son’s death but was on the waitlist for about six months before someone had an opening.

Womack played Division II basketball at Fisher College in Boston and often trained people at the gym. He would FaceTime his mother sometimes 10 times a day and come home to steal her “good bananas” or make sure she was doing OK.

Womack worked with young people who had been involved in the criminal justice system, trying to steer them to better choices.

More than 1,300 people came to his funeral, including a friend from college who told Felix that Womack had let him sleep in his dorm room when he was struggling and use his meal plan card so he wouldn’t go hungry.

Felix has had a hard time with her son’s death. She doesn’t accept the police determination that the man who shot him was acting in self defense, but there were no cameras in the parking lot.

“I didn’t want to die,” she said of how she felt after her son’s death. “But I didn’t want to live, either.”

While she waited for counseling, she shared her grief with friends and discovered that she knew 20 people who had lost their children to gun violence in and around Philadelphia in 2020. She’s working to raise money to start a “grief cafe” where people who have lost someone can come and talk about their loved ones and where they can talk to a therapist.

“People think you bury your child, and life goes on,” Felix said. “But they don’t see how sometimes you can’t get up out of bed, how you start crying when you’re driving down the street for nothing.

“I want to normalize counseling, especially for the African American community.”