Guest Viewpoint: Child Abuse: April’s the time to prevent childhood trauma

Guest Viewpoint: Child Abuse: April’s the time to prevent childhood trauma
Posted on 04/03/2016
Katharine Gallagher

For The Register-Guard
  April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month — a special opportunity to emphasize the importance of promoting well-being and preventing maltreatment in childhood.

It is also an opportunity to recognize the year-round service and impact of the many people and organizations in our community that are committed to children’s health and safety.

A project of potential interest to readers is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Community Education and Engagement project. The ACEs project stems from the 2013-16 Lane County Community Health Improvement Plan.

The plan is used by the Lane County Health and Human Services department, United Way, PeaceHealth and Trillium Community Health Plan to focus local efforts and resources on critical issues with the greatest impact on health.

ACEs are childhood experiences that can be serious, severe and harmful. They can disrupt physical, mental and social development. They can happen in any family, and their long-term, cumulative effects can be felt well into adulthood and across generations.

Increasingly, ACEs are understood as major determinants in public health spending.

ACEs — the acronym and the concept — has its origins in “The ACE Study,” an ongoing collaboration between the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The study is the foremost epidemiologic inquiry into the long-term effects of childhood adversity, a term encompassing abuse, neglect and family dysfunction.

Between 1995 and 1997, 17,000 study participants provided detailed information about their childhood experiences. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed reported one or more experience of extreme adversity in childhood.

Oregon collects ACEs data, too. The results are similar: 64 percent of Oregonians have experienced at least one ACE, with substance abuse, verbal abuse and parental separation or divorce being the most common.

Comparing Oregon ACE scores with adult health outcomes highlights an important relationship. Among Oregonians with an ACE score of 4 or higher — meaning they report four or more adverse childhood experiences — the prevalence of smoking, depression, kidney disease, cancer and heart disease is nearly 50 percent higher than among those with lower scores. And sometimes, the percentage is even higher than that.

Advances in neuroscience shed needed light on how extreme adversity, or trauma, generates negative adult outcomes. Trauma can over-activate a growing brain’s stress response system.

Prolonged stress activation makes it harder for a growing brain to absorb, respond to and develop new information. Crucial energy can be diverted away from the development of motor skills, language, memory and emotional regulation. This can make it harder for a young child to engage in and benefit fully from the other experiences of early childhood and beyond.

As the effects of ACEs are better understood, so too is the role of resilience in protecting against trauma and healing its effects.

Resilience is the capacity to cope with and thrive during the challenging times that are an inevitable part of life. It is increasingly understood as an adaptive attribute that can be cultivated. It grows within children when caring adults buffer and shield them from extreme adversity. Parents, teachers, coaches, neighbors, social service professionals and other adults promote resilience when they make themselves available to children.

Best of all? These social connections need not be long-lasting or intense to have profound and positive effects on a child’s experience and trajectory.

The ACEs community project educates and engages with Lane County residents in three ways: dissemination of Englishand Spanish-language educational materials, a media outreach campaign, and free presentations to organizations. Materials include brochures, bookmarks and posters that emphasize nurturing resilience through child-adult relationships.

Community organizations are welcome to request ready-to-print files for their own use. And keep an eye out for Lane Transit District buses sporting ads highlighting quick tips for promoting resilience. Drivers and children can read and talk about how these resilience tips fit within day-to-day relationships.

Free community presentations are available through July. To date, the ACEs project has contacted more than 400 organizations and scheduled nearly 50 presentations throughout the county.

Groups requesting information include educators; counselors; nurses; administrators; civic groups such as Kiwanis, Rotary and local granges; health care providers; social service agencies and nonprofit organizations; the faith community; and early childhood professionals.

ACEs presentations are an excellent resource for the many individuals and organizations that may or may not be directly involved in promoting children’s well-being and preventing abuse but care deeply about these issues. Presentations are a bridge to becoming more knowledgeable and engaged with current thinking and approaches.

The information is valuable not just when thinking about the children within one’s reach, but also about individual adult and generational health.

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