Study helps analyze long-term impact of childhood heartache

Nearly 20 years ago, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study changed how we understand trauma’s effect on children. It analyzed the cumulative and long-term impact of abuse and trauma suffered during childhood.

The study inspired countless studies, intervention innovations, trainings and program assessments aimed at helping our kids be healthy, safe and successful.

The study also highlighted the cumulative effect multiple types of trauma have on a child.

In addition to examining direct traumas, such as physical violence, sexual abuse, serious neglect and substance abuse, the study also measured the effects of a child’s exposure to experiences such as domestic violence, criminal activity in the household, mental illness of a household member, living with someone with a substance use disorder, divorce and separation and incarceration of a family member.

The cumulative effect of these experiences can result in lasting cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems.

Yet the impact of these experiences varies from child to child. The American Academy of Pediatrics distinguishes normal stress, some of which is beneficial for child development, from repeated or prolonged exposure to adverse childhood experiences.

Jennifer Disbro, director of specialty services at Adult and Child Health, says stressful events aren’t necessarily traumatic. The difference in how children react is often the presence of caring or “buffering” adults.

We know we have reasons to worry about the well-being of Hoosier children. New research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that Indiana had the nation’s greatest percentage increase in the number of children placed in foster care.

In 2016, the Indiana Department of Child Services reported a sizable increase in the number of substantiated cases of abuse or neglect. More than half of instances of children being removed by the Department of Child Services were due to parental substance abuse.

The study helps us understand that addressing the state’s opioid epidemic is vital to the health of more than those suffering from substance use disorder. It also helps us recognize the challenges of protecting the children who are exposed to substance use and the turmoil it causes.

Understanding and evaluating the full scope of child trauma is crucial to our ability to help. While it can be difficult to hear the heart-wrenching experiences some young people have endured, experts caution that our interventions shouldn’t impose our personal values on the kids we want to help.

Social workers, educators, medical personnel and juvenile justice workers all routinely interact with traumatized children. These professionals must evaluate stressful situations based on each child’s response to those events, rather than making assumptions about the impact.

Important programs in our state connect youth to caring and stable adults and environments. The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. has an innovative, district-wide model rooted in the study.

The initiative aims to maximize student learning potential and achievement by focusing on child social-emotional well-being. Susan Phelps, director of neuroeducation for Evansville schools, says that instead of being an added program, the approach is integrated into daily activities so that it benefits all students.

I encourage everyone in a profession serving children to dig into the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. For many of us, it forever changed how we view the impact of trauma on kids.

Our communities need to make sure there are school- and community-based programs that accept the challenge of working with these complex cases and include support systems to retain and sustain the caring adults who work with these young people.

By acknowledging the complexities of childhood experiences, we can work to develop interventions with lasting impact. There are no easy answers, yet creating an Indiana where all Hoosier children can grow to be healthy and productive citizens is worth pursuing.

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.