In January 1987 I began serving clients for counseling. Many them have been children and youth. In June of that year I was hired for the victim crisis service, and child clients were among the victims in crisis. Kids are still part of my private practice. For adult clients a predominant aspect has often been the trauma that person experienced as a child. Early on I would say to others in the mental health or addiction field that 95 percent of those being served were abused as a child. At that time, no one wanted to heed that fact or address it in treatment because it might be “too upsetting” or “take him/her off program.”
About the same time Vincent Felitti, MD, began to notice some of the impacts of child abuse and wondered why it was not being taught in medical school. He was head of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine. Joined by Robert Anda from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they conducted the ACE Study — Adverse Childhood Experiences — during the mid 1990s.
In the study, adverse childhood experiences included: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, exposure to domestic violence, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, and incarcerated household members. About two-thirds of the participants reported at least one adverse experience, and of those, 87 percent reported an additional ACE. The more ACEs, the higher the likelihood of later high-risk behaviors, such as addiction to alcohol, other drugs, food, or gambling. Mental health challenges of anxiety, depression or PTSD often develop. Common increased physical health concerns are obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, chronic lung disease, and shortened lifespan.
Remember that the adverse experience is from a child’s perspective and a child’s situation, and there usually is little that a child can do about his or her environment. The resulting trauma and the impact upon a child’s development and life are what have made the ACE Study such a valuable addition to service provision and prevention.
Neurological brain development at a young age can especially be affected. ACEs “can alter the structural development of neural networks and the biochemistry of neuroendocrine systems” (Felitti). One result is toxic stress, which is the repeated activation of the brain’s fight-or-flight stress response system. Having to always be on alert to stay safe or be careful about what you do or say is what a child learns to cope, to survive.
Have you experienced ACEs? Did you ever tell anyone about what happened? Was there anyone who came to your aid? What has the impact been on your life? Do you have children? Have they experienced ACEs? Has Child Protective Services been involved? Have your children been separated from you … by CPS? Mommy! Daddy!
So far this year 69,550 children have been separated from their parents by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Mexican border. This is in addition to the 15,000 children separated in 2018. Mama’! Papa’! Can’t picture that many kids? The Buffalo Bills’ stadium would not be able to hold them all. Plus the estimated 3,000 children separated in 2017 under the administration’s anti-immigrant, inhumane piloted “zero tolerance policy,” which lacked adequate tracking technology. The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security just issued a report about the lack of tracking for family reunification. The report reveals that officials had planned to separate upwards of 26,000 children before a federal judge’s June 2018 order blocked the policy.
These children — from babies to teens — have been held in detention camps, some for months, in holding cells resembling cages and pens unfit for human beings. CHILDREN. Perhaps you have seen the pictures of children on mats on cement floors covered with blankets that look like aluminum foil. Children have been denied soap and toothbrushes. Seven children have died of preventable illnesses while in U.S. custody.
These are government facilitated adverse childhood experiences. These are high numbers of ACEs and the resulting trauma by which thousands of children are impacted ... and will continue to be impacted. Will seeing aluminum foil be a trauma trigger for them in the future because of those “blankets?” You have read about the multiple ways a future life is affected by childhood trauma.
The current administration certainly lacks compassion and has no empathy. The policy of family separation was an effort to deter those fleeing violence and poverty, yet the result has damaged “those children” who seem not to matter. If only we could report the administration to Child Protective Services for the abuses of those children. They certainly need to be protected. Knowing this, how would you feel if this happened to your child? What trauma would impact your child given the ACE Study?
A federal judge recently ruled that the government must provide mental health services, perhaps long-term, to thousands of children and parents who experienced harm as a result of family separation. That will be a mighty challenge for the government considering that the need will require numerous counselors and therapists who are trauma-informed and who speak the languages of those family members. Not all of those detained speak Spanish, most do. Some are asylum seekers from Central America and speak their own indigenous language. Will the government appeal? Will it be upheld?
Meanwhile, for all those children there will be no Feliz Navidad.