Preventing childhood trauma should be one of the top goals of California policymakers, a coalition of child advocates say.
About 150 of the advocates came to Sacramento last week to educate legislators about the devastating effects of adverse childhood experiences. The goal was to help legislators create policies that will better protect kids.
Adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs, are experiences that are so harmful to children’s developing brains that they affect their lives decades later.
“This is a public health issue,” said Chris Padula, executive director at San Francisco’s Center for Youth Wellness, one of the co-sponsors of the California Campaign to Counter Childhood Adversity Policymaker Education Day. “Millions of children and adults have been impacted by adverse childhood experiences.”
In California alone, more than 1.5 million children have had two or more adverse childhood experiences, according to advocacy group Children Now, another co-sponsor of the policymaker education day.
Adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs, are experiences that are so harmful to children’s developing brains that they affect their lives decades later and lead to chronic diseases, violence, depression and most mental illnesses. The link was reported in a groundbreaking 1998 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente.
The ACEs researchers studied were physical, sexual and verbal abuse, physical and emotional neglect, witnessing a mother being abused, losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason and having a family member who is depressed or diagnosed with mental illness, addicted to alcohol or another substance or in prison. Subjects of the study were given one point for every adverse experience they had faced.
“Kids are very resilient but that doesn’t take into account that this is physically changing the body.” — Chris Padula.
Researchers have found that the higher the score, the worse the outcome. For instance, an ACE score of four increases the risk of alcoholism seven times and attempted suicide 12 times and doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. People with high ACE scores have higher rates of unwanted pregnancies, divorce, prescription drub abuse, broken bones and obesity.
Padula of the Center for Youth Wellness said his group thinks all children should be screened for ACEs as soon as possible. His group is backing Assembly Bill 340, which would require just that. Padula said there isn’t enough understanding in the public about how much the biology of the body changes if children are over-exposed to adversity.
As an example, if children are exposed to chronic stress, they will become overly sensitive to stress and will respond more strongly and negatively to events that other people dismiss as mild. “People think kids can get over this,” Padula said. “Kids are very resilient but that doesn’t take into account that this is physically changing the body. This is why pediatricians need to be a part of this conversation so we can look at this from a public health perspective.”
Bobby Jones, senior executive director of the African American Family and Cultural Center in Oroville, believes there needs to be more of a shift to a helping attitude rather than a punitive approach to children who act out. “Instead of looking at the behavior, we have to look at what happened to the individual,” he said.
“It fills me with an abundance of hope that we are transforming our systems to truly become cultures of care, hope and healing…” — Dana Brown
Jones, who attended the policymaker education day, said his goal in his meetings with legislator staff members was to find out what he can do to help put preventing child trauma on the top of their agenda. He found the meetings positive and he hopes to continue his efforts to educate people in his region about the harmful effects of adverse childhood experiences.
“It’s being kind and understanding what happened to the individual,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to spread the word, spread the love and move forward.”
The advocates cited Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, as a leading legislator who does focus on preventing harm to children. Mitchell gave a pep talk to the advocates during their visit to Sacramento
Mitchell said her guiding vision is to build a California where every child has access to the resources he or she needs to thrive.
As an example, she recently Senate Bill 439, which says that children under 12 shouldn’t be in jail. “I don’t know how we got to this point as a civilized society where our perceptions of our role as adults went from providing care, cover and nurture of children to criminalization and locking them up,” she said.
Dana Brown, the Southern California regional community facilitator for ACES Connection, a group that works to create resilient families, said she would like to see more tax dollars directed to helping people heal.
She found Sacramento responsive to that message. “It fills me with an abundance of hope that we are transforming our systems to truly become cultures of care, hope and healing as we help individuals served by systems come out from shame and blame,” she said.