To hear pediatrician and activist Nadine Burke-Harris tell it, the movement to address the epidemic of childhood trauma has come a long way in the past two years.
“When I first started talking about this eight years ago, I would get into a room of a thousand people and I would ask how many folks had heard of adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress,” Burke-Harris said at a conference last week organized by her organization, the San Francisco-based Center for Youth Wellness (CYW). “Three hands would go up.”
“But I’m happy to say that two weeks ago, at the White House, I asked the very same question and every single hand in the room went up.”
Burke-Harris has traveled far and wide talking about the impact of the seminal Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study that showed a direct correlation between traumatic experiences during childhood and poor health outcomes later in life.
Since the study’s publication in 1998, seeing childhood trauma as a major public health concern has gained influence across many child-oriented sectors, including public health, early childhood education, pediatrics, juvenile justice and child welfare.
In the years since, a new ACEs field has spawned scores of follow-up studies and new programs aimed at addressing and identifying trauma early. Given this platform, CYW’s 2016 Adverse Childhood Experience Conference, the focus was on creating an infrastructure that could support changes in policy and practice.
With roughly 450 attendees, the second incarnation of a biannual conference drew from a range of frontline practitioners, advocates and others across several fields from all over the country.
Bryan Stevenson, a celebrated public-interest lawyer who has fought to prevent children convicted of a crime from serving sentences in adult prisons and from ending up on death row, addressed the group.
“We’re seeing an epidemic of trauma in our communities,” Stevenson said. “There are 200 zip codes in this country where 80 percent of the children are expected to end up in jail or prison.
“I actually think the CDC should declare a health crisis in the zip codes where these kids live. I’m very worried about Zika, I’m also worried about meth, but I’m also worried about trauma in this country and what it’s doing to the health of our kids.”
The convening also offered space for attendees to learn about emerging and evidence-based practices to combat the impact of childhood trauma. Experts led discussions around the development of trauma-informed systems, educational interventions and the use of resources like the ACEs Connection Network.
A project showcase offered a look at grass-roots approaches to different ACEs-driven research, programs and tools. Many documented at the conference have begun to develop traction in communities, from the emerging use of health-impact assessment to considering the impact of ACEs in policy-making decisions to the work of the District of Columbia to create a trauma-informed juvenile-justice system.
Leaders hope that a greater investment in this type of work can make a dent in the number of children who have experienced a traumatic event early in life. Now 32 states are collecting ACEs-related information in health surveys and 27 states have enacted ACEs-related policies, according to Burke-Harris.
But doing more will require a substantial outlay of resources that poses a challenge to the burgeoning movement.
A possible plan came from Robert K. Ross, president and chief executive officer of The California Endowment, which has played a galvanizing role in establishing programs to address the impact of childhood trauma in the state.
Amid ongoing criminal-justice reforms in California that have taken aim at reducing the number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons, Ross said that redirecting this money toward investments in healing ACEs could yield untold benefits.
“We need to stop tinkering around with pilot programs and projects, and move $3 billion from the punishment and incarceration budget in the state of California,” Ross said. “But it’s going to take a fight. If you think this is anything less than a political fight and a political mobilization, you are kidding yourself.”
He noted that efforts to create broad public health change have sometimes taken decades, like efforts to reduce smoking. But it’s time for advocates and practitioners to advance to the political stage to make a difference, he said.
“This is like buckle your seatbelt and get in the fight politically in order to do what it’s going to take to move this science forward,” Ross said.