Officials see 'alarming increase' in gun violence among kids

"It's not like time heals, so as years go on, as you acquire more, as you do more, it's always that one person missing, and you always feel that missing part." 

It's been 15 years since Odessa Napper-Williams lost her son, Andrell, to gun violence. All those years coping with an unimaginable loss.

"It has been my strength to keep his name alive, to keep his legacy alive, to just keep the world remembering him, everything I do is a remembrance of him," Napper-Williams said. 

Sadly, it's a pain even more parents have endured in recent years. 

‘Alarming’ numbers

Numbers from the NYPD are alarming. 

  • In 2017, there were 75 shooting victims under the age of 18.
  • By 2022, the number doubled to 153.

Makeshift memorials have become an all too familiar sight. The fear is real.

"I pray for these kids every day when I get up that when these children walk out the door, may God protect them," one concerned resident said.

RELATED: Activists, victims' parents demand NYC take action on gun violence in city schools

It's not just New York City. 

Across the United States, firearms have now surpassed motor vehicles as the leading cause of death among kids and teens, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

Pediatricians in the city are seeing a harsh reality firsthand. 

"Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we've seen about a 185% increase in gunshot wound patients that we're treating at Jacobi," Dr. Romo, the director of pediatric inpatient service at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, said.

"A couple of years ago we did a study in the ER surveying kids that came in ages 11 to 17 about exposure to gun violence in the community," Dr. Romo said. "What we found is almost 50% knew someone who was killed in the past year. Over 60% reported hearing gunshots in the past month, so the impact that has on the developing brain in the child is significant, and it's something we don't talk about enough."

Public health crisis?

Romo believes the problem needs to be addressed as a public health crisis. He serves as medical dIrector of Jacobi's Stand Up To Violence program.  

"We've established hospital-based violence intervention programs, which encompass a team of social workers, physicians and community outreach workers to really respond to patients who are victims of violent trauma," Dr. Romo said. 

"We provide them with counsel and mediation services, job training, different support, services connected to psychological and psychiatric services to mitigate the circumstances that led to their victimization, to try to prevent them from retaliating."

"As a pediatrician, all of us are taxed with trying to keep kids, healthy, and safe," Dr. Alyssa Silver said.

At Montefiore, Dr. Silver is an associate professor of Pediatrics at the Children's Hospital. While it is not a trauma center like Jacobi, she's also seeing the impact there. 

"We've actually had several parents tell us when we're talking about nutrition and exercise and trying to battle the other epidemic of obesity, the parents are afraid to let the kids go out and play because of the rising gun violence in certain neighborhoods," Dr. Silver said.

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Dr. Silver focuses on prevention and advocating for safe firearm storage.

"It kind of naturally flows with the counseling that the pediatricians give when we talk about other safety issues like car seats and bike helmets," Dr. Silver said. 

"This is just one other thing you know, we talk about smoke detectors, do you have your smoke detector? Do you have your gun storage securely? That's it. No judgment. These are the things we need to do to keep your kids safe."

More needs to be done

Both doctors agree much more needs to be done. 

"I feel it's something that has been under recognized and under studied and not enough effort when you look at research dollars," Dr. Silver said. "We know there haven't been a lot of resources  devoted to preventing firearm related injuries, and especially now that is the number one cause of death in kids."

"I think as a city, we can do a lot more in terms of expanding these types of programs, to be present in all of the trauma centers in our city, and we can truly say we are addressing violent trauma as a public health crisis that it is by having intervention at every hospital that receives these patients."

It's a sentiment, shared by Napper-Williams, who now devotes her time helping other families navigate the emotional trauma after losing a child to gun violence.

"Supporting, hand holding, calling mothers, just being a spirit of presence among them, sending them balloons when it is the transition day, flowers on their birthday," she said.

 But she recognizes that especially for mothers, it's a wound that never truly heals.