Communities Come Together to ‘Change Minds’ About Child Trauma

Projected on the enormous screen at the front of the room was a blue-tinged image of a brain scan with a seemingly simple phrase next to it: “Changing Minds.”

The striking image and accompanying messages are still being developed by national nonprofit Futures Without Violence (Futures) for a public outreach campaign about the complex issue of childhood trauma. Participants at the “Changing Minds and Creating Trauma-Informed Communities” convening, hosted by Futures in early February, got a preview of the campaign.

The two-day convening drew leaders and advocates from the child welfare, education, health and juvenile justice fields who gathered to share strategies around preventing and healing from childhood exposure to violence. The convening began on Feb. 2 in Los Angeles and concluded on Feb. 3 in San Francisco.

Panelists at the Changing Minds conference hosted by Futures Without Violence, California Department of Justice and the Ad Council in Los Angeles. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

Panelists at the Changing Minds conference hosted by Futures Without Violence in Los Angeles. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

Teams from cities, counties and tribes from across California were invited to attend, with representatives coming to Los Angeles from the southern part of the state, and to San Francisco the following day from central and northern California.

Part of the inspiration behind the campaign, a 2012 report by Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence revealed that nearly two out of three American children have experienced violence, crime, abuse or psychological trauma that can result in “traumatic disruptions of brain functioning.” The report also notes that the adverse effects of violence and psychological trauma can be reversed through trauma-informed practices and treatment, allowing children to get back on a healthy developmental course.

Accordingly, the name “Changing Minds” refers to the campaign’s intent to change attitudes and beliefs as well as the notion that brains can change, and that children who have been traumatized can heal. As speakers noted throughout the event, too few people who interact with children in professional capacities on a daily basis understand childhood trauma or have the tools to help children who experience it.

Created by Futures Without Violence along with the federal Department of Justice Defending Childhood Initiative and the Ad Council, the campaign is geared toward teachers, nurses, coaches, counselors and other adults who regularly interact with children, and will be perhaps the most highly visible example yet of the growing momentum around preventing trauma as well as widespread efforts to promote trauma-informed strategies.

Accompanying the campaign is a report written by Children Now and Futures Without Violence, “Changing Minds and Creating Trauma-Informed Communities,” which served as background to the event. The report will be refined by feedback from participants, then offered as a roadmap to communities.

At the convenings, representatives from California counties were encouraged to find a common agenda around childhood trauma and look for ways to overcome barriers that prevent systems from addressing it. As terms like “childhood trauma,” “resiliency” and “adverse childhood experiences” are garnering increased attention, Futures Executive Director Esta Soler suggested that now is an opportune time to seek systems change around the issue.

“Movements are made of moments,” Soler said in opening remarks, “and this is our moment.”

Futures’ Changing Minds Initiative aligns with other statewide efforts to build trauma-informed practices in California, including the California Defending Childhood Initiative, which co-sponsored the convening. Led by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, the initiative is part of the federal Department of Justice Defending Childhood Initiative, which provides support to states for comprehensive efforts to address childhood trauma.

Other efforts to build trauma-informed communities in the state include the ACEs Connection Network, the California Campaign to Address Childhood Adversity, and the Children’s Movement of California. Underlying much of this work is the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente in 1995-1997, which found a correlation between exposure to childhood trauma and poor health and other negative outcomes later in life.

In the Bay Area, the Trauma Transformed (T2) Initiative brings together seven counties to promote a trauma-informed system through trainings and policy guidance. In Los Angeles County, a group of service providers formed the Greater Los Angeles Trauma-Informed Task Force to promote comprehensive approaches to trauma across different systems in the county. Advocacy organization First 5 L.A. recently included trauma-informed care in its strategic plan for the first time.

“In order to ensure that every child in L.A. County is ready to succeed in school and in life,” First 5 L.A. Executive Director Kim Belshé told the gathering in Los Angeles, “we need to take a systems-change approach, a policy and advocacy change approach, a collaborative approach. And we really do what we can to strengthen the families, the communities in which they live and the systems upon which they rely.”

As systems throughout California work to become trauma-informed, state-level policies may also present opportunities to build healthier communities. A panel of California state policy leaders, including California Department of Education Special Advisor Jason Spencer, California Department of Social Services Director Will Lightbourne and Jill Habig, special assistant attorney general to California Attorney General Kamala Harris, discussed policy opportunities to address trauma in the state.

For example, proposed state legislation (Assembly Bill 1644) could bolster children against the effects of trauma by restoring mental health programs for elementary-age schoolchildren that were slashed in 2012.

Mitigating the impact of childhood trauma crosses over many disciplines. Habig drew applause from the crowd when she repeated a frequent comment of Attorney General Harris: “We cannot continue to fail our children, and then lock them up later and act surprised.” Instead, she said, children need to be put in a position to thrive.

Participants broke into groups by service area in order to share emerging best practices and strategies for overcoming challenges. Bianca Madrid, program coordinator of the Seaside Youth Center in the city of Seaside in Monterey County, which provides support to youth ages 10-21 and their families as part of the city’s violence prevention efforts, appreciated the opportunity to meet with people doing similar work in other regions of the state.

“It allowed me to dialogue more closely with other programs about the strengths and strategies in their communities…and the challenges they’ve faced with current policies at the city, county and state levels,” Madrid said.

Futures Without Violence plans to launch the “Changing Minds” campaign in late spring.

Child Trauma Editor Jeremy Loudenback contributed reporting for this story from Los Angeles.

Correction: The Changing Minds campaign is being developed by Futures Without Violence along with the Ad Council and the federal Department of Justice Defending Childhood Initiative, not the California Department of Justice as the article originally stated.

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