Tarpon Springs, FL, first trauma-informed city, embraces messy path toward peace

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Tarpon Springs, Florida, once known as the nation’s sponge-fishing capital, today boasts a new designation: the first city in the country to declare itself a trauma-informed community.

It isn’t that the 24,000 residents of the scenic Gulf Coast town know more than the rest of us about emergency room techniques, spend their time crunching spreadsheets of violence data or watch more episodes of “America’s Most Wanted.”

Being a trauma-informed community means that Tarpon Spring has made a commitment to engage people from all sectors—education, juvenile justice, faith, housing, health care and business—in common goals. The first is to understand how personal adversity affects the community’s well being. The second is to institute resilience-building practices so that people, organizations and systems no longer traumatize already traumatized people and instead contribute to building a healthy community.

Beginnings: a goal to stop violence

The journey officially began in February 2011, when the Tarpon Springs City Council signed a memorandum of understanding to marshal the community to address and prevent childhood and adult trauma.

The results have been profound. Trauma-informed practices have been implemented in small and large ways in a variety of organizations, including an elementary school, an ex-offender re-entry program and the local housing authority. The Pinellas County Department of Health recently decided to incorporate in its Community Health Improvement Plan a goal of providing trauma-informed information in all of its county health facilities.

“Once you bring the community into it, you just don’t know how it’s going to grow,” says local artist Robin Saenger.

“She listened,” says Saenger, “and then said: ‘You’re talking about a trauma-informed community.’” Blanch explained how many of the issues facing Tarpon Springs—homelessness, domestic violence and substance abuse—stemmed from childhood adversity. And the Peace4Tarpon Trauma-Informed Community Initiative was born.

“My belief is that trauma is universal,” says Saenger. “Everyone’s experienced trauma in one form or another, and usually does on a regular basis throughout the course of a lifetime,” whether that stems from being in a car accident, witnessing domestic violence or having a loved one with substance abuse problems. And everyone is affected

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Mindfulness protects adults from physical, mental health consequences of childhood abuse, neglect

Aeye2Fact #1: People who were abused and neglected when they were kids have poorer physical and mental health. The more types of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) – physical abuse, an alcoholic father, an abused mother, etc. – the higher the risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, obesity, being violent or experiencing violence. Got an ACE score of 4 or more? Your risk of heart disease increases 200%. Your risk of suicide increases 1200%.

Fact #2: Mindfulness practices improve people’s physical and mental health.

Now, says Dr. Robert Whitaker, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics and public health at Temple University, there’s one more important fact: People who are mindful are physically and mentally healthier, no matter what their ACE scores are.

This study, to be published in the October issue of Preventive Medicine, is the first to look at the relationship between ACEs, mindfulness and health. And it has implications for anyone, and especially those who take care of children– teachers, parents, coaches, healthcare and childcare workers.

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Dr. Robert Whitaker

Many people think of mindfulness as sitting around and saying “Ommmm.” There’s actually more to it, and it’s worth explaining. People who aren’t mindful don’t regulate their own emotions very well. Situations that trigger traumatic memories may cause people who aren’t mindful to lose focus on what’s happening currently, and lead them to make snap judgments and have knee-jerk reactions of anger, frustration, or fear, which can further the spread stress and trauma. They also ruminate on situations they can’t control, and can’t let go. And they may not even be conscious that they’re doing any of this. They just think it’s part of their personality.

Here’s what it’s like not to be mindful:

  • “My co-worker’s angry today. I must have done something wrong. She’s JUST like my mother: moody, angry, a screamer. Well, I’d better get my defenses up and give her a piece of my mind before she attacks me.”

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To prevent childhood trauma, pediatricians screen children and their parents…and sometimes, just parents…for childhood trauma

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Tabitha Lawson and her two happy children

When parents bring their four-month-olds to a well-baby checkup at the Children’s Clinic in Portland, OR, Drs. Teri Petersen, R.J. Gillespie and their 15 other partners ask the parents about their adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

When parents bring a child who’s bouncing off the walls and having nightmares to the Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris doesn’t ask: “What’s wrong with this child?” Instead, she asks, “What happened to this child?” and calculates the child’s ACE score.

In rural northern Michigan, a teacher tells a parent that her “problem” child has ADHD and needs drugs. The parent brings the child to see Dr. Tina Marie Hahn, who experienced more childhood trauma than most people. Instead of writing a prescription, Hahn has a heart-to-heart conversation with the parent and the child about what’s happening in their lives that might be leading to the behavior, and figures out the child’s ACE score.

What’s an ACE score? Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood trauma.

Why is it important? Because childhood trauma can cause the adult onset of chronic disease (including cancer, heart disease and diabetes), mental illness, violence, becoming a victim of violence, divorce, broken bones, obesity, teen and unwanted pregnancies, and work absences.

The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) measured 10 types of childhood adversity: sexual, physical and verbal abuse, and

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Q-and-A: Pediatrician screens parents, kids for trauma because her ACE score is 9

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Dr. Tina Marie Hahn

Dr. Tina Marie Hahn is a pediatrician in Alpena, Michigan. She agreed to answer these more personal questions as part of an interview about how she and other pediatricians are screening children — and parents — for adverse childhood experiences.

Q. What personal or professional moment or event in your life inspired you to work on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)?

A. When I was four-and-a-half years old, I saw my father murder my grandmother.

My father was quite a demanding man — he felt as if everyone owed him. But he was also lazy. He didn’t work my entire childhood. He supported himself from state welfare checks intended to provide for his three children. My father wanted Grandma Hahn to give him money for cigarettes, but she refused. She told him he needed to go work at the hardware store and do something productive before she would give him more money. He became VERY angry and he pushed her down her basement steps.

After pushing her, he screamed angrily: “I don’t care if she dies. When she dies, I’m going to piss on her grave.” It terrified me. It seemed as if Satan possessed him. Even though I was frightened, I stayed at grandma’s side for a day and a half, trying to give her water from a bathroom Dixie cup because she kept saying that she was thirsty. My screaming father and my mother, ignoring the whole thing, left Grandma trapped at the bottom of those steps for almost two days until her cries ceased.

Diane, my mother, did nothing, not because she was afraid of my father, but because she followed him around

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Trying to make LA schools less toxic is hit-and-miss; relatively few students receive care they need

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The Peacemakers of Harmony Elementary School in Los Angeles, CA.

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For millions of troubled children across the country, schools have been toxic places. That’s not just because many schools don’t control bullying by students or teachers, but because they enforce arbitrary and discriminatory zero tolerance school discipline policies, such as suspensions for “willful defiance”. Many also ignore the kids who sit in the back of the room and don’t engage – the ones called “lazy” or “unmotivated” – and who are likely to drop out of school.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which banned suspensions for willful defiance last May, the CBITS program (pronounced SEE-bits), aims to find and help troubled students before their reactions to their own trauma trigger a punitive response from their school environment, including a teacher or principal.

Gabriella Garcia’s son attended Harmony Elementary School during the 2012-2013 school year. The school has 730 children in kindergarten through fifth grade. She says without CBITS, she would have lost custody of him and her other two children. “But for some reason,” she says, “I let him (her son) take that test.”

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Top U.S. health philanthropy – Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – awards ACEs Connection Network $384,000

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As part of its commitment to improving the health of the nation’s most vulnerable people and building a culture of health, the nation’s largest health-focused philanthropy, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recently awarded a $384,000, two-year grant to the ACEs Connection Network.

Jane Stevens, a long-time health, science and technology journalist, launched the network two years ago. It comprises ACEsConnection.com, a community of practice social network, and its accompanying news site, ACEsTooHigh.com.

ACEsTooHigh publishes news, features, essays and analysis for the general public about the short- and long-term consequences of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The site has received more than one million page views over the last two years. Its stories are also distributed to other media sites, including The Huffington Post and SocialJusticeSolutions.com. With the additional resources provided by the grant, the site will feature more stories about how people and communities are implementing practices based on ACEs research and concepts, and distribute these stories more widely.

The grant will also help grow ACEsConnection, ACEsTooHigh’s companion community of practice social network, from its current 2,000 members to 8,000 participants and more than 100 groups. ACEsConnection links people – online and face-to-face — who are implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on adverse childhood experiences research. ACEsConnection participants include physicians, judges, social workers, nurses, academics, educators, legislators, advocates, philanthropists, peer support specialists, probation and parole officers, therapists, researchers, members of the faith-based community, writers, documentary producers, business owners, artists, and community officials.

The first five members of the ACEs Connection Network team are:

  • Valerie Krist, graphic designer for ACEsConnection and ACEsTooHigh. She also provides design assistance for group pages on ACEsConnection, and creates infographics for selected articles.
  • Sylvia Paull, a well-known network marketing strategist, develops marketing materials, strategic partnerships, outreach strategies, and new distribution channels for content.
  • Jasmine Pettis, a Masters of Public Health student at San Jose State University, is ACEsConnection’s information specialist.
  • Elizabeth Prewitt, ACEsConnection community manager, also does policy analysis for both sites. Formerly, she was director of public policy for the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors and director of government affairs and public policy for the American College of Physicians.
  • Joanna Weill, ACEs Connection Network intern. She is working on her doctorate in social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on the experiences and relationships that put people at risk for criminal behavior and recidivism.

Dr. Jeffrey Brenner: “I believe ACE scores should become a vital sign, as important as height, weight, and blood pressure.”

This video looks at the relationship between ACEs and hospital emergency rooms.

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Dr. Jeffrey Brenner is founder and executive director of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, and a 2013 MacArthur Foundation genius award winner. He did groundbreaking work in Camden, N.J., by using data to identify people who were hospital emergency room “frequent fliers”. He found that between their trips to the ER, little or nothing was done to help them improve their health. So, he began putting basic services in place to help these people. His work was written up in a New Yorker article — The Hot Spotters, by Dr. Atul Gawande — in  2011.

That article sent a shock of electricity through me — not only because it was so well written, but because Brenner was on to a solution for markedly reducing health care costs. However, it seemed to me that there was a piece missing —  if Brenner knew about the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, he (and other physicians) might be able to identify the people who suffer most in our society more quickly.

Today, an essay Brenner wrote about how the medical community has neglected the ACE Study, even though its findings were published in 1998, appeared on Philly.com’s The Field Clinic blog. It’s well worth a read. Here’s part of it:  

For nearly 15 years we’ve had the secret to delivering better care at lower cost in America.  The information has sat, hidden away in the medical literature, and barely mentioned among physicians.  It’s a remarkable story of bias. The neglect of this information by the medical community tells you a lot about our failings as a profession and the poor training we receive.  It’s also a powerful commentary on the values of our society and the biases built into our society’s view of health and healthcare.

In the 1990’s, a physician at Kaiser Permanente in California, Dr. Vincent Felitti, conducted a mail survey with 17,000 middle class patients.  He asked them questions about traumatic events that might have happened to them as children.  Incredibly, over 70% of people receiving the survey responded, and they gave permission to connect their survey answers to their medical records.

….In the work that I do in the City of Camden building interventions for high-cost complex

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