Simultaneously making changes at the organizational level and building alliances across sectors for larger system change, Father Jeff Putthoff, SJ, and Dr. Jeffrey Brenner realized they had to dig deeper — beyond symptoms to root causes — to understand the struggles they were witnessing in Camden, NJ. What they found were ACEs.
Putthoff, a Jesuit priest known locally as “Father Jeff,” is a fireplug of purpose under his casual uniform of cargo shorts and sweatshirt, earbuds slung around his neck, a blue bicycle his preferred mode of transport. He is voluble and passionate on the subject of his city. Since 2000, Father Jeff has directed Hopeworks N’ Camden, an organization that offers in-school and out-of-school youth GED classes and web-site design instruction—skills intended to parlay directly into jobs or college.
Brenner is equally driven—a physician/scholar/prophet in a slightly rumpled suit, with a calendar so crammed he must set a smartphone alarm to keep his days on track. He is founder and executive director of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers and the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur “genius” grant. In 2011, he was profiled in The New Yorker, which chronicled his innovative plan to shrink the cost of health care by focusing on the highest-risk patients, providing them with team-based interventions to keep them out of hospitals, and by helping them manage chronic illnesses and social/emotional needs.
But it wasn’t until the last three years that each man learned of the CDC Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, whose first study was published in 1998, and began to apply its lessons to his work. That study, of more than 17,000 Kaiser Permanente members in California, showed that early childhood adversity—including neglect, physical and sexual abuse and parental abandonment—was both widespread and corrosive to long-term physical and mental health. Trauma, the study implied, leaves tracks in the brain and lingers in the body. Stress can literally make people sick.
Putthoff saw the symptoms of that trauma every day. Camden earned the dubious title of “most violent city in America” in 2012, when there were 67 homicides among its 77,000 residents. That year, someone in Camden was shot, on average, every 33 hours. Two out of five Camden residents live below the poverty line. The streets are pocked with nearly 4,000 abandoned homes.
“I’ve been here [in Camden] 16 years,” Putthoff said. “I’ve been chasing the symptoms all those years, trying to change people’s behavior, get them jobs, get people in school. The dawning realization was that we were not dealing with the cause.”
Hopeworks N’ Camden provides training programs in a trauma-informed environment
Putthoff could see how frustration and hopelessness were wearing on the Hopeworks staff—10 full-time and four part-time employees who work to boost students’ reading skills and teach them web site design and GIS (geographic information systems, or