Childhood isn’t safe — yet.

Adversity, abuse and neglect before, during and after COVID-19.

The hope is that every child is treasured, protected from adversity, abuse, neglect and trauma. The reality is far from that as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and the related health challenges they can manifest, are far from rare. ACEs were first identified in the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study by Doctors Felitti and Anda in 1998. ACEs, identified by the authors and researchers in an attempt to understand how childhood experiences impact adult health outcomes, represent ten forms of adversity children endure in the home and include:

  1. Physical abuse
  2. Emotional abuse
  3. Sexual abuse
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Living in households with domestic violence
  7. Living with adults who misuse substances
  8. Living with adults with untreated mental health challenges
  9. Having parents separate or divorce
  10. Living in households where a member is incarcerated

The ACEs Survey was originally designed to measure in adults how many ACEs were endured. Today, decades after the original ACEs Study, there’s an app young people use to get their own ACEs score on the ten-question survey. There are students in your schools who have endured as many as four through ten ACEs and somehow manage to make it through the school day. Of course, for many living in unstable homes, school is the only safe place to be. Those students enduring ACEs will spend far more time worrying about what awaits them at home than doing math homework. (Think about being an eight-year-old girl during a year in lockdown, in a home where enduring ACEs is the norm.)

For children living in unsafe homes with parents unequipped to parent, an adverse childhood experience can be like confronting a bear in the woods. Our fight or flight response engages in order to survive. Most of us run from the bear. This is not an option for our children enduring ACEs. This fight or flight response, a short-term strategy that saves us from a bear, is not one we are designed to live with constantly. Children were not designed to live in constant fear in their homes, wondering each day if an attack is coming.

There may be costly short, intermediate, long-term and lifelong health, safety, and learning and work-related consequences for enduring ACEs and the potential trauma it can cause. The more ACEs endured, the more likely one is to suffer through childhood, the teens and adulthood. ACEs can lead to emotional and physical challenges, including increased mental health challenges, low school achievement and dropout, lack of job readiness, substance use disorders, and years of life lost.

Our epidemic rates of ACEs do not build societies where everyone can grow up to be a productive, tax-paying, and contributing member of the neighborhood. Trauma has become a community norm in many places, diminishing the lives of entire city and town populations.

There is no more a complex social challenge than ACEs, and nothing more important for community stakeholders to fully understand. ACEs and the trauma it can cause impacts all residents, directly or indirectly. While some may score a zero on the ten-question ACEs survey, we all navigate a world of relatives, friends, neighbors, educators and co-workers who may have scored much, much higher. This means untreated trauma in our homes, schools, communities, workplaces and city halls.

As one reviews the data and research associated with ACEs, and all the challenges correlated to them, key points become clear:

  1. ACEs can push our children into a constant state of fight or flight with short-term, long-term or lifelong impact.
  2. Most instances of ACEs are hidden from the public view, flying under the radar of schools and child protective services.
  3. ACEs occur in all socio-economic groups.
  4. ACEs can be cyclical with the traumatic behaviors being passed from generation to generation.
  5. The child welfare system is not funded nor staffed to prevent ACEs in a systemic and data-driven process. The woefully overburdened Child Protective Services Department was designed a hundred years ago to address maltreatment after it occurs and it’s a very costly and imperfect process. There is, quite frankly, no government institution funded with the exclusive mission of tracking, preventing and treating ACEs in your city, county and state.

The most important thing to understand about ACEs is that they are impairing our physical and emotional health, destroying essential relationships, filling our jails, diminishing our workforce, inhibiting learning in our schools, overtaxing our emergency rooms and encouraging the sort of hopelessness that drives people to emotion-numbing substances and other self-destructive behaviors.

ACEs and all the challenges associated with them are predictable and preventable. We have the capacity to turn science into real-world prevention strategies. We can heal communities. Data-driven ACEs prevention work is at the centerpiece of the 100% Community initiative and you are invited to join the groundbreaking work across your county, ensuring each community is empowered to achieve one vital, measurable and meaningful goal: Trauma-free childhoods for 100%.

Mobilize! Survive! Thrive!

Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. All cartoon characters are pure fiction and any resemblance to real humans, puppies or three-headed hydras is total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Questions? Push to front of reading list: 100% Community: Ensuring 10 vital services for surviving and thriving and Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras: Confronting Apathy, Envy and Fear on the road to saving humans and the future. Better yet, let‘s meet at the EYE bookcafe to share a latte and some bold ideas.

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.

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