Children’s Resilience Initiative in Walla Walla, WA, draws spotlight to trauma-sensitive school

RRocksbannerIn Walla Walla, Washington, the journey to implement ACEs research has been akin to a wild ride on a transformer roller coaster that arbitrarily changes its careening turns, mountainous ascents, and hair-raising plunges. And sometimes the ride just screeches to a frustrating halt.

The odyssey began in October 2007, when Teri Barila, Walla Walla County Community Network coordinator, heard Dr. Robert Anda, co-investigator of the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), speak at a Washington State Family Policy Council (FPC) event.

Without a doubt, he said, childhood trauma is the nation’s No. 1 public health problem. The ACE Study – the largest public health study you never heard of — shows that childhood trauma is very, very common. (ACE surveys in 22 states now echo the results.) And this childhood adversity causes violence, including family violence, as well as the adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness.

The Family Policy Council was the umbrella organization for 42 community networks across the state that were addressing local issues such as youth substance abuse, school drop-out rates and teen pregnancy. Anda implored the coordinators to “get something started” in their own communities because he was getting little traction on a national level.

Barila returned to Walla Walla fired up. The city, with a population of 32,000, has three colleges, a robust agricultural community, including a newly flourishing wine industry, and a revitalized downtown. But one out of four of its children live in poverty, 65% of its residents have not attended college, and gangs and drugs are common. Barila was determined to educate the community about the dire and costly consequences of ACEs and the “clear impact of stress on the developing brain of a child.” She organized a community meeting in early 2008 and brought Anda in for a two-and-a-half-hour seminar; 165 people showed up.

At the end of Anda’s presentation, a parent named Annett Ridenour walked to the front of the room, and, with tears streaming down her face, took the microphone out of Anda’s hand. “I have 10 ACEs,” she said, “and now I understand my life.”

“This made me believe in the liberating effects of ACEs,” writes Barila in the “Getting Started” chapter of the the Resilience Trumps ACEs Manual. It was also the unofficial start of the Children’s Resilience Initiative.

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The Camden story: A physician and a priest plant seeds of repair

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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

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How the NFL can stop abuse AND keep its players on the field

A young fan wears an Adrian Peterson jersey.  [Photo: Ann Heisenfelt/AP]

A young fan wears an Adrian Peterson jersey. [Photo: Ann Heisenfelt/AP]

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Many people are happy that the Vikings kicked Adrian Peterson off the team and that Ray Rice can no longer play for the Ravens. Their off-field violence has cascaded into harm and loss for everyone involved – spouses, children, team, league and fans — all because of the consequences of their childhood trauma. And the only way the NFL can stop further abuse, harm and loss is…well…to deal with its players’ childhood trauma.

The severe and toxic stresses in Peterson’s past – or what we in the trauma-informed community count on a scale from one to 10 as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs – aren’t minor. As a child, he lost his father to prison, suffered through his parents’ divorce, saw his brother killed by a drunk driver, and was beaten by his stepfather. Repeating the pattern, he whipped his own four-year-old son with a switch so harshly that he raised welts on the child’s body. And if Peterson is convicted and goes to prison, his son can add another ACE to his trauma-filled life.

Peterson and Rice are two of millions of child and spouse abusers who love their families and can learn from their mistakes, if provided with help early enough. The average child abuser or spouse abuser isn’t dirty, disheveled, reeking of alcohol or stoned on meth. Child and spouse abusers are corporate CEOs, ministers, priests, actors, business owners, teachers, truck drivers, physicians, nurses, basketball heroes, journalists, computer programmers, and your next-door neighbors.

They’re dads and moms who have a hard time controlling their emotions when they’re under stress because they themselves were abused. Nobody helped them when they were kids and nobody’s helping them as adults.

Plain and simple, childhood trauma is the nation’s No. 1 public health problem. The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) – the largest public health study you never heard of — shows that childhood trauma is very, very common. (ACE surveys in 22 states echo the results.) And this childhood adversity causes violence, including family violence, as well as the adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness.

By learning about the science of childhood adversity, and following the lead of many other organizations that are becoming trauma-informed, the NFL could have players whose families are happier and healthier, it could have better players (more focused, less stressed), and it might never have to deal with a Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson situation again.

The NFL has 1,696 players. Of those 1,696 players, probably two-thirds – 1,119 young men – have experienced one type of serious childhood trauma. And it’s likely that 22 percent – about 370 players –

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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.

But the unofficial journey began in the middle of 2010. Saenger, who was Tarpon Springs’ commissioner and vice-mayor from 2005 to 2011, wanted to figure out a way to reduce the increasing levels of violence in her community. She talked with a friend, Andrea Blanch, a senior consultant at the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care, about her goal.

“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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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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What’s missing in climate change discussion? The certainty of trauma…and building resilience

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This spring, a group of more than 160 mental health professionals, resilience-building specialists and mindfulness teachers officially launched the International Transformational Resilience Coalition. Their goal is a challenging one: to raise awareness of how climate change traumatizes communities around the world. The group’s mission is to not only educate the mental health field about this threat, but to also provide preventive solutions before disaster strikes.

The initiative was first envisioned by Bob Doppelt, executive director of The Resource Innovation Group, an BobDoppelt2Oregon-based nonprofit that works across the U.S. to develop new approaches to social-ecological problems, including climate change. Doppelt said that efforts to mitigate climate change have focused on external aspects like fixing and improving infrastructure and developing new forecasting models.

“And throughout all of that work,” he said, “it dawned on me that we were missing what is likely to be the most important issue facing us, and that is the human response to climate change.”

Doppelt said he’d seen this firsthand after Hurricane Sandy devastated communities in southeast Florida, a region where The Resource Innovation Group played a key role in helping the government address climate change readiness. Trained as a counseling psychologist, Doppelt decided that it was essential to develop programs for teaching people how to become resilient as they faced the acute trauma and chronic stress brought on by climate change.

A year-and-a-half ago, The Resource Innovation Group launched its own program to teach mindfulness skills to individuals, organizations and community leaders across the country. The premise is that everyone will need coping techniques as climate change disrupts communities in both profound and subtle ways.

Yet, resiliency is a word that Doppelt uses carefully. “We came up with the term transformational resilience because in many cases the impacts of climate change mean there is no going back to pre-crisis conditions,” he said.

Doppelt also realized that this approach needed an entire network of dedicated mental health and mindfulness professionals – not just one organization like his championing the cause. That’s when he helped organize nearly two dozen founding members, including Dr. Sandra Bloom, co-creator of the Sanctuary Model, and Elaine Miller-Karas, executive director and co-founder, Trauma Resource Institute.

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Am I really the worst? A day in the life of parenting special needs children

AfamilyThe other day after a particularly lively visit to PetSmart with my husband and our two special needs children, a woman who had been in the store at the same time drove up and said: “You are the worst parents I have ever seen.” She drove off before I could respond, not that I had a witty comeback. To clarify, no animals were hurt (or even handled), nothing was damaged and we did not leave any messes for store employees to clean up. We were probably the loudest family in the store, but that is normal in our world.

I am confident I cannot possibly be the worst parent out there.

My children, who both struggle with multiple disabilities, had a fun outing to the pet store with two parents who love them dearly. Despite their challenges, they are on the honor roll at school, play sports and engage in other extracurricular activities and have received awards for their accomplishments. Of course, it is easy to listen and accept negative comments of someone who sees my life for less than 15 minutes and makes a faulty assessment. I am like every other parent: I worry. I have doubts and fears. I doubt myself. I question if I am doing enough.

Most parents worry about their children, but parents of special needs children need to know the world is a better place because they are in it. We are parents who have been to more medical appointments with our young children than most adults have been to in their whole lives.  Our children often have had multiple diagnoses yet don’t really “fit” any of them. We sometimes feel isolated because our children don’t seem to fit into any group, even the “special needs” ones. We’ve scoured books, magazines and web sites in the hopes of finding something new that might be effective for our children’s needs. We feel exhausted, overwhelmed and incompetent on a daily basis but still get up every morning and try to provide the best for our children. We fight schools, doctors, friends and even family members every day just to get them to understand the basic needs of our children. And after all of that, we have to put a positive spin on some very ugly comments our children hear on a regular basis.

To paraphrase the late Erma Bombeck, God is looking down from heaven and pairing children with appropriate parents. When He chooses parents for a handicapped child, He decides they must be happy so the child can know laughter; they cannot have too much patience or they will drown in a sea of self-pity and despair; they must have a sense of self and independence so they will be able help the child who is in her or his own world function. They must to be a little bit selfish to separate themselves from the child occasionally to survive. They will see clearly ignorance, cruelty and prejudice and be able to rise above it.

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