With all the discussions and outrage about children being held in terrible conditions at the southern border, many people are wondering what can be done to help. Apart from calling our federal representatives or accompanying church mission groups going to provide direct assistance, I hear many people feeling frustrated that they cannot do more. While I share that frustration, it’s worth remembering that there are issues of children’s health right here in our own backyard that also could use our attention.
Many years ago, Nadine Harris, a young pediatrician in San Francisco was dealing with a lot of patients presenting with ADD, ADHD, childhood obesity, and other conditions. She noticed, in reviewing their charts, that there were similarities in their home situations. Many kids had an incarcerated parent or sibling, many kids were being abused or witnessing the abuse of their mothers, many kids had a parent with a mental illness or substance abuse problem. She wondered if there might be a correlation between the toxic ingredients of the home life and the presenting conditions in her office.
From that initial alert, with the power of medical researchers from the Centers of Disease Control, the childhood ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score became a reliable predictor of negative health outcomes. ACEs include: abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), neglect (physical, emotional), and household dysfunction (mental illness, incarcerated relative, observed violence toward the mother, substance abuse, divorce). As the number of ACEs in a child’s life increase, so does the likelihood of health problems. What we are seeing is the manifestation of trauma in the body, a topic of recent study that does not get (in my view) enough attention relative to the magnitude of the effect.
Trauma is not just an immediate problem but an accumulated effect that has been proven to have not just psychological but physical effects. Chronic stress related to dealing with trauma rewires the brain, can accelerate aging, and can mutate DNA to bring on disease.
For years a small group of dedicated individuals called Success for Geneva’s Children, has been collecting data on the experiences of infants and children in the city. They have been measuring conditions that negatively impact not just children’s health but health of families generally. The Geneva 2020 initiative features this data in its focus on educational opportunities from preschool to high school. In the most recent survey, 67 percent of Geneva’s children face at least one ACE in their lives, and one in eight children has suffered four or more. Another indicator not captured in the ACEs score is the stress related to not having a stable place to live. According to school district data, 94 students were classified as homeless last year.
The research shows that four or more ACEs correlate with significantly reduced health impacts as well as social and psychological effects. What is recommended is that children receive multifaceted interventions to assist them with processing and releasing the trauma of these exposures. Just as children of smokers are at higher risk of asthma, children with parents in prison or children being abused or children who witness domestic violence in their homes are at higher risk of long-term damage to their mental, physical, social, and psychological health.
What children need, in addition to empathy and understanding of their circumstances (as opposed to discipline and punishment for behaviors stemming from ACEs) is intervention in the processing of these traumas.
Family Counseling of the Finger Lakes is a statewide leader in trauma-informed care, which consists of a targeted form of interventions that address the emotional effects of such experiences. The focus is on building resiliency — the ability to endure and recover from bad things. The pediatrician who made this connection with her patients, Nadine Harris, has started the Center for Youth Wellness and is now California’s Surgeon General. By deploying psychotherapy and biofeedback strategies in the lives of children facing trauma, this Center is changing lives for the better.
We should do everything we can to help children have good lives, which means opposing children being separated from parents and caged as well as helping local children get the assistance they need to process traumatic events. Although it did not make the final cut for the DRI funding, the idea of a Resiliency Center in Geneva should continue to be a goal. The sooner we implement a multi-faceted approach to responding to the ACEs in local children’s lives, the better.