Commentary by Tami Silverman
Nearly 20 years ago, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study changed how we understand trauma’s effect on children. It inspired countless studies, intervention innovations, trainings and program assessments aimed at helping our kids be healthy, safe and successful.
The ACE Study highlighted the cumulative effect multiple types of trauma have on a child. In addition to examining direct traumas, such as physical and sexual abuse or serious neglect, the study also measured the effects of exposure to experiences such as divorce, domestic violence, or living with someone who had a mental illness, substance use disorder, or was incarcerated. The cumulative effect of these ACEs can result in lasting cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems.
Yet the impact of these experiences varies from child to child. The American Academy of Pediatrics distinguishes normal stress, some of which is developmentally beneficial, from repeated or prolonged exposure to ACEs. Experts say stressful events aren’t necessarily traumatic if they are countered by caring adults.
We know we have reason to worry about the well-being of Hoosier children. New research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that Indiana had the nation’s greatest percentage increase in the number of children placed in foster care. Indiana’s Dept. of Child Services reported a sizable increase in substantiated cases of abuse or neglect last year, and more than half of removals were due to parental substance abuse.
The ACE Study helps us understand that addressing Indiana’s opioid epidemic is not only vital to the health of the adults using those drugs but is also critical to protecting the children who are exposed to substance use and the turmoil it causes.
Understanding and evaluating the full scope of child trauma is crucial to our ability to help. Although it can be difficult to hear the heart-wrenching experiences some young people have endured, experts caution that our interventions shouldn’t impose our personal values on the kids we want to help. Professionals who routinely interact with traumatized children must evaluate stressful situations based on each child’s response to those events, rather than making assumptions about the impact.
I encourage everyone in a profession serving children to dig into the ACE Study. It forever changed how many of us view the impact of trauma on kids. Our communities need to ensure there are school- and community-based programs to work with these complex cases. They must also include support systems for the caring adults who work with these young people.
By acknowledging the complexities of childhood experiences, we can work to develop interventions with lasting impact. There are no easy answers, yet creating an Indiana where all Hoosier children can grow to be healthy and productive citizens is worth pursuing.
Tami Silverman is a Zionsville resident. She is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI