California’s first ACEs summit: Children Can Thrive

Parker Blackman. [Photo by Jason Steinberg/Steinberg Imagery]

Parker Blackman. [Photo by Jason Steinberg/Steinberg Imagery]


A three-day summit on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, strengthens California’s efforts to orient policy and practice around preventing and responding to child trauma.

By Parker Blackman

“We know that it makes sense to keep kids in school for $9,000 a year versus individuals in prison for $62,000 a year.”

This statement is the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a leader in education or child welfare, right? What if I told you instead that the person who said this is a leader in the criminal justice system? In fact, no less than the Chief Justice for the California State Supreme Court Tani Cantil-Sakauye made this statement as part of a panel at a three-day summit held this month called: “Children Can Thrive: California’s Response to Adverse Childhood Experiences.”

From November 5 – 7 in San Francisco, more than 200 leaders from across the state and from various sectors – including health, medicine, education, child welfare and criminal justice – gathered for the first-ever state summit on the impacts of early childhood trauma.

Organized by The Center for Youth Wellness, the goal of the summit was to engage key stakeholders to learn more about the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and begin to think about how to build a comprehensive, integrated system for identifying, screening and treating adverse childhood experiences. While that’s a daunting task, the summit was a smashing success. It brought together leaders across sectors to learn from each other and begin to ask important questions about how we identify and respond to ACEs.

Here are just a few of the key issues that folks grappled with over the course of the summit:

  • How do we get the various systems talking to one another? For example, if a child is acting out in pre-school, how can teachers be trained to not only identify symptoms of adverse childhood experiences, but who can they then connect with in order to get the child the help he/she needs and deserves?
  • How do we talk about this issue in a way that will resonate with a broader audience? Adverse childhood experiences, or even toxic stress, are insider terms that have little to no resonance with the average Californian. And this issue is relevant to a wider audience as we found out at the conference. The Center for Youth Wellness released its groundbreaking report,  “Hidden Crisis: Findings on Adverse Childhood Experiences in California” (HiddenCrisis_Report_1014), which found that nearly 62 percent of all Californians have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience such as abuse, neglect or ongoing household dysfunction. So we need to develop
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The town of The Dalles, OR, remakes itself as a trauma-sensitive sanctuary


Tucked into a curve of the Columbia River, which marks the watery border between Washington and Oregon, lies the small town of The Dalles. Its claims to fame include being a major Indian trading site for 10,000 years, a camping spot for Lewis and Clark in 1805, and the terminus of the Oregon Trail.

Now The Dalles is seeking a different kind of notoriety. This city of 13,000 is the first in the nation to seek certification from the Sanctuary Institute—a model of organizational change that challenges every part of the community to examine and remake itself through a trauma-informed lens.

Dalles (pronounced “dahl,” with a silent “s”) is a French word for “slabs” of rock around and over which the Columbia once roared.  The population of this rural community, 70 miles east of Portland, is mostly white, 30% Hispanic, and less than 10% other ethnicities. “It’s small enough that I’m able to call the chief of police and go out for coffee,” says Trudy Townsend, assistant to the superintendent of the North Wasco County School District 21.

The community is no different from others its size: If people don’t know you, they know someone who knows you. That intimacy provides a sense of belonging and connection that is hard to find in larger cities. But if you had told any leader—or citizen—in The Dalles in 2008 that deepening those connections and becoming a trauma-informed community was on the horizon, they would not have believed it.

That was the year when the U.S. Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) awarded the community a five-year, $2.7 million Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant. It specified that law enforcement, mental health, juvenile justice and education agencies work together to make schools safer and students healthier. “We added the Department of Human Services,” says Townsend, who was hired as project director. “One of SAMHSA’s hopes for an outcome was that communities would build better relationships and systems.”

Many communities that received the grants hired school resource officers. The Dalles did something different. With the exception of the school district, which was the grantee, the partners on the core team did not receive any direct funding. They wanted to focus on sustainable change, so they combed the agencies’ data for specific problems and asked how each partner could help resolve them. For example, when data showed significant behavioral issues at the middle school among a group of students, the director of  juvenile justice volunteered to greet those students at school every morning, and a targeted intervention for boys was put into place.

The core team opted to put resources into after-school programs, mental health and crisis intervention for students in the Adallescommunity’s three

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Most Californians have experienced childhood trauma; early adversity a direct link to adult onset of chronic disease, depression, violence


Nearly two-thirds of California adults have experienced at least one type of major childhood trauma, such as physical, verbal or sexual abuse, or living with a family member who abuses alcohol or is depressed, according to a report released today.

The report – “Hidden Crisis: Findings on Adverse Childhood Experiences in California” (HiddenCrisis_Report_1014) – also reveals the effects of those early adversities: a startling and large increased risk of the adult onset of chronic disease, such as heart disease and cancer, mental illness and violence or being a victim of violence.

Ten types of childhood trauma were measured. They include physical, sexual and verbal abuse, and physical and emotional neglect. Five family dysfunctions were also measured: a family member diagnosed with mental illness, addicted to alcohol or other drug, or who has been incarcerated; witnessing a mother being abused, an losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason.

Each type of trauma counts as an ACE (adverse childhood experience) score of one. The more ACEs a person has, the higher the risk of facing physical, mental and social problems.


For example, Californians who have an ACE score of 4 or more are nearly twice as likely to have asthma, 2.4 times as likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 1.7 times as likely to have kidney disease, and 1.5 times as likely to have a stroke. They’re five times more likely to be depressed and four times more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s. Those with an ACE score of 4 or more are approximately three times more likely to smoke, binge drink and engage in risky sexual behavior. They’re nearly 12 times more likely to be the victim of sexual violence after they’re 18 years old.

One in six Californians – 16.7% — has an ACE score of 4 or higher. (Got Your ACE Score?)

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Alberta Family Wellness Initiative changes minds by informing Canadians about effects of toxic stress on kids’ brains

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A cartoon outline of a child – in a video – stands alone near a cracked sidewalk heaped with obstacles: giant red bricks labeled “neglect,” “abuse” and “parental addiction.” The voice-over says: “It’s possible to fix some of the damage of toxic stress later on, but it’s easier, more effective and less expensive to build solid brain architecture in the first place.”

The four-minute animation—which covers toxic stress, caregiver-child interaction and the role of communities in building healthy brains—has reached many people since its release in October 2013. But the video is just one snippet of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI), a project aimed to better the lives of children and families in one of Canada’s westernmost provinces.

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

The AFWI, launched in 2007 by the private Norlien Foundation, has an ambitious agenda: to promote the use of scientific knowledge about early brain and biological development in order to change beliefs, policies and practices related to children, families and communities—in short, to “bridge the gap between what we know and what we do,” according to a 2013 AFWI report.

The AFWI began its work by capturing the attention and engagement of high-level “change-makers”—government officials, community leaders, policy experts, academics and administrators who could learn the newest science, discuss it in depth, then take that story home to influence research, policy and practice.

“In the early days, the focus of our effort was on policy-makers and professionals rather than the public. You need to start changing the thinking of those in the system who are making decisions before you start focusing on a public audience,” said Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president of Norlien.

AFWI focuses on the “core story of brain development,” a series of metaphors grounded in emerging biomedical science and developed with the help of the FrameWorks Institute  and the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University.

  • Brains are not just born; they are built through a child’s experiences and interaction.

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Maine Resilience Building Network changes how people think about childhood trauma

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Sue Mackey Andrews will talk to anyone about adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs: Pediatricians. Early childcare workers. Parent advocacy groups. And those on the front lines who work with kids, like the longtime school bus driver from rural Maine, a gruff and taciturn man who insisted, during a half-day school district inservice, that trauma and resilience had nothing to do with his work.

The driver also told Andrews that he would not start the bus each day until he had made eye contact with every single child and greeted him or her by name. And that, Andrews responded, was exactly the relevance of his work to build resilience.

The tagline of the Maine Resilience Building Network (MRBN), which Andrews co-facilitates, is “Join the Conversation.” The

Sue Mackey Andrews, co-facilitator, Maine Resilience Building Network

Sue Mackey Andrews, co-facilitator, Maine Resilience Building Network

group, formed in the spring of 2012, brings together practitioners in medical care, education and behavioral health, along with those working in business, law enforcement, the military, juvenile justice and faith communities.

Since its early meetings, comprising a half-dozen people, all of them doing work based on research into childhood adversity, MRBN has grown to include 77 members, with reach into all of Maine’s 16 counties.

From the beginning, said Andrews and MRBN co-facilitator Leslie Forstadt, associate professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the group agreed that the message should focus on wellness and healing rather than illness and trauma.

The word “resilience” had to be part of the name because, said Andrews, “we talk about how it’s never too late to realize your ACEs and, through support and personal discovery, overcome them.” The term “building” captured the sense of a growing effort, and “network” aptly described how individual sites would function autonomously while sharing their innovations, challenges and questions.

The term “ACEs” has its origins in the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. The study revealed a direct link between 10 types of childhood adversity and the adult onset of chronic disease (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, etc.), mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. It showed that childhood trauma was very common — two-thirds of adults have

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Arizona ACE Consortium spreads awareness, influences prevention of childhood trauma

Not long after Marcia Stanton stumbled across the original article from the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, she heard a conference presentation by Dr. Vincent Felitti, one of the study’s co-authors. She invited Felitti to do grand rounds with 100 pediatricians at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where she works.

“I thought they’d be all over this,” says Stanton, a social worker in the hospital’s Injury Prevention Center, where she coordinates child abuse prevention programs and promotes primary prevention. After all, the study revealed a direct link between 10 types of childhood adversity and the adult onset of chronic disease (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, etc.), mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. It showed that childhood trauma

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Three brothers, three different paths out of foster care


Joseph Bakhit keeps a 2010 photo of his brother, Terrick, left, and himself in his Berkeley, California apartment, September 29, 2014. Bakhit is a former foster child and UC Berkeley student, double majoring in Peace and Conflict and Art. California’s AB12 legislation provides him with a stipend of $838 per month until age 21, in an effort to ease the transition from the foster care system into adulthood.


By Brian Rinker

The brothers escaped on a Sunday.

Matt, 14, Terrick, 12, and Joseph, 11 pretended to go to church that day in 2006, but in secret they had planned to run away and never come back. No more living with an angry grandmother who drank. No more beatings with the belt.

They stashed a black plastic garbage bag full of

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