Scenes from the Life:
The effects of gun violence on children and families as observed by three child life specialists in the United States. 

ACLP Bulletin | Summer 2023 | VOL. 41 No. 3


Jennifer Fieten, MA, CCLS
Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, Chicago, IL
Concordia University, Ann Arbor, MI
Willow House, Chicago, IL 

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“Gun deaths among children and teens rose 50% in just two years, from 1,732 in 2019 to 2,590 in 2021” (Gramlich, 2023). 


Sidney Moreno, MS, CCLS
Shriners Children’s of Northern California, Sacramento, CA 

Brielle Swerdlin, MHA, CCLS
Methodist Children’s Hospital, San Antonio, TX 

Jennifer Fieten, MA, CCLS
Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, Chicago, IL
Concordia University, Ann Arbor, MI
Willow House, Chicago, IL 

Gun violence is a significant human rights issue, one that we as child life specialists encounter with great frequency while serving children and families in the healthcare setting. Our trauma-informed perspective has uniquely contributed to our ability to serve children and families using an evidence-based approach. Below, three Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLSs), working across the United States, share their experiences working with children and families that have been affected by gun violence. Responses were collected via email during Gun Awareness Month in June 2023.  

How have you seen families affected by gun violence? 

Sidney: Working with the spinal cord injury and rehabilitation population has opened my eyes to the long-term effects gun violence can have on the family unit. My patients are learning to navigate their world with new physical barriers, emotional rollercoasters, and adapting to new expectations of life. Something that I believe is often over looked is the grieving process that these families and children go through while being a survivor. Whether it is grieving the loss of motor function, cognitive impairment, or the loss of what once was. Every person involved in the family unit is learning how to live their new way of life.  

Brielle: In my previous role, I worked as an ED CCLS in a Level One Trauma Center. Unfortunately, the area in which I lived had a very high rate of pediatric patients who were victims of gun violence. The impact this had on, not only the patients, families, and immediate community members, but the community at large, other patients in our hospital, and medical team was profound. I think we often downplay or do not realize the ripple effect these events can have on our communities. I have been involved when doctors have told families that they were unable to save the life of their child. I have sat on the dirty ambulance bay floor with crying and hysterical family members. I have been present during loud grieving and quiet grieving. I have been yelled at by other patients and family members that their visit is taking too long and they don’t understand why they have not been seen faster, but I have had to keep a polite smile on my face and tell them that the medical team is working as quickly as possible and that I will let the charge RN know they want to be seen sooner while being unable to share with them that the wait is because the medical team is trying to save a kid’s life. I have seen hundreds of people show up at the hospital with anger and confusion of these senseless acts as they try to console their community members. I have worked with members of the community on the Trauma Response Team (TRT) to help advocate for the families and get them the support they need. I have stood side-by-side with staff as we bring family members into the trauma room as time of death is called. I have held space for staff who are distraught that their efforts to save these patients were futile. I have participated in debriefings provided to the medical team to assist us in having a better understanding of the situation and to talk through the attempts that were made to save the patient’s life. I have gone to the Medical Examiner’s Office to be able to provide handprint molds, ink prints and jewelry charms for these families. I have seen my patients talked about on the news and social media sites, with community members leaving memories and comments about the patient for all to see. I have seen principals release statements to the school community regarding the death of a child and the services that will be available for those who need it. I have spoken with parents of children in the community asking for resources on how they talk to their children about the violence that is happening around them. 

Jennifer: As a child life specialist, I have worked in the emergency department, in the ICU, in the rehabilitation setting, and as an organ donation specialist for an organ procurement organization. I have seen the effect of gun violence on families immediately after it has occurred, as families have awaited news in the ICU, as families have had to make the extremely difficult decision regarding whether or not to donate, and now as the patient and family learns to navigate their “new normal.”  To witness the grief regarding “what was” and “what now is”, to hear about the nightmares, to support the patient in processing their experience and in finding the hope to move forward, to create space throughout the process, and to see the impact of gun violence on not just the patient, but on the entire family (and, community); has been both disheartening and life changing. To bear witness as two teenage boys each shared their experiences of being shot, words just do not describe it accurately. 

What have you found to be the most useful ways to support families affected by gun violence?

Sidney: The most useful way to help families that I have found is to provide them with an open space to explore different questions they come to me with. Having open-ended discussions allows both the families and their child to navigate through their different emotions. I also believe that building rapport with the family and child prior to these conversations creates a safe place for the families to not feel judged or looked at differently based on their experiences. I have found it most helpful to bring my teen patients together for exploration of their own needs and having a person they can relate to.  

Brielle: I do not think there has been one most useful way to support families affected by gun violence. Every situation, circumstance, and family is different, thus requiring a different approach for each. I have found that providing families with resources to help them in the future has seemed to make a good impact. Finding book, online, and support resources to provide families has allowed me to connect them with ways to move through this new phase of life. I have also received voicemails from families after they have received their handprint molds/jewelry to their homes, thanking us for providing these materials. Families stating that this has provided them a feeling of closeness with their loved one again. 

Jennifer: I do not believe that there is one way that is more useful than another. I find that the best that I can do is to meet the patient and family where they are, to tailor my support to what I assess to be the most important for that patient and family. It is to remember the tenets of trauma-informed care and the influence of trauma on what I am witnessing in front of me, to be that reminder of that to other members of the interdisciplinary team. To create space for the patient to feel however they need to and to be that listening ear; to provide developmentally appropriate information when needed, and to provide encouragement when that is needed too. One cannot discount the importance of creating a place where the patient knows and feels that they are heard.  

As a child life professional, what are your thoughts on ways that we can bring awareness to this issue and ways in which we can advocate for those affected? 

Sidney: Collaborating with our families and patients that we work with can help bring awareness to gun violence and allow them to share their stories as they wish. I have had patients in the past express their desire to share their stories on social media and have been able to collaborate with our development and media team to assist these patients in sharing their stories appropriately. Giving other children and families stories to relate to brings a sense of community and support in ways we may never be able to fathom on our own. This opens the world for these children and families to be vulnerable and lean on others when they need it the most.  

Brielle: I think the question of as a child life professional, how can we bring awareness to this issue and ways we can advocate for those affected, is multifaceted. Continuing to share the ACLP, AAP, and other organizations stances on gun violence will continue to propel this issue into the limelight. Continuing to provide resources to our communities for when acts of gun violence happen in our direct communities or those nationally is helpful and beneficial to get this information out to the families who are grieving these situations. Sharing our stories and anecdotes so those in our communities- and our local governments- can have a true glimpse of what it looks like in the healthcare setting to be dealing with gun violence. Fighting for increased access to debriefings, counseling and mental health providers for our medical teams is also important, so our providers can protect their mental health to continue to be able to serve our communities. Providing educational opportunities for reporters, news outlets, elected officials and others on how the messaging and news delivery can be better tailored to not harm those in our communities who are seeing these stories. Lastly, making sure our child life education prepares us and provides us the tools we need to be able to support our communities in these times of tragedies. 

I think it is important to mention and remind ourselves that gun violence affects us as providers as well. Whether as a CCLS working in a trauma center and directly providing services to these patients or not, we are all still impacted. With the climate across the country and seeing more and more mass shootings and singular shootings (likely many shootings happening in our own communities), it is hard to not see these events on TV and social media. It is important that we focus on taking care of our mental health so that we are in the best places to support our patients and communities during these events. Having resources available to us to share with our communities is also very important. Conducting research studies and gathering information about these situations will assist us professionally and allow us to contribute to the resources available. Organizations like Child Life Disaster Relief to help provide support is also something that will help us to better provide for our communities. 

Jennifer: I think that we have the ability to advocate and to bring awareness on a daily basis,. Whether it be through conversations with our team members, in our interactions with our patients and families, in our conversations with hospital leadership, as we meet with and train students, as we supervise volunteers, and as we interact with others in our community, we have the opportunity to be a voice to talk about the effects that we have seen (while maintaining HIPAA). We also have the ability to advocate on a larger scale, reaching out to our state and federal governments to advocate on a public policy level.  

Gun violence remains a human rights issue. As child life specialists, we have the ability to advocate for, and bring awareness to the needs of those affected. Take action by utilizing the ACLP Gun Violence Prevention & Safety Advocacy Toolkit. Child life specialists’ advocacy is vital; this toolkit offers resources to make your voice heard. 


Amnesty International. (2023). Gun violence. Retrieved from

Gramlich, J. (2023). What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S. Retrieved from