The Adverse Childhood Experiences 2016 Conference, hosted by the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW) and sponsored by the California Endowment, Kaiser Permanente, and Genentech, took place October 19-21 at the Park Central Hotel in downtown San Francisco and began with an exuberant welcome from the CYW’s executive director, Mark Cloutier.
“Let’s have fun,” he shouted, and the 450 participants — teachers, therapists, doctors, lawyers, and other trauma-informed professionals — gave a big shout back.
In the two years since the first California ACEs Summit, when few people even knew about ACEs, public awareness of adverse childhood experiences and their effect on children and adult mental, emotional, and physical health has grown. Thirty-two states now collect ACEs data, and on the digital network ACEsConnection, a social network for people who are implementing practices based on ACEs science, more than 11,000 people find resources, news, and network and share ideas.
Dr. Brigid McCaw of Kaiser Permanente’s Family Violence Prevention Program said that beyond awareness, we now need to build connections, advance our knowledge of the science of ACEs, and generate action. On the action front, KP is partnering with schools to provide a tool to train staff to become ACEs-informed and develop ways to help their students.
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, founder of CYW and perhaps the major force behind the entire ACEs movement, smiled as she took over the podium. “This moment for me is like a dream come true,” and she thanked everyone building ACEs awareness, which she said is “the most important health crisis of our time.”
She said that we need to move beyond awareness to build an ecosystem of ACEs-informed care, such as the simple, free ACEs screening tool that CYW developed, which has been downloaded by 1,100 clinicians.
But the single most effective intervention, she said, is “a safe, stable relationship with a caring adult,” because children are as responsive to positive experiences as to adverse ones and can develop resilience as a result.
Burke-Harris also noted that her center is leading a $5 million study with Benioff Children’s Hospital to study the
biomarkers of ACEs; last year, the American Association of Pediatrics held a daylong seminar on ACEs at its annual symposium; and our very own ACEsConnection, founded by Jane Stevens, has become “the most powerful network.”
She also cited James Redford’s film, Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, and encouraged participants, “We have an opportunity to create a different future for our children.T he right people are in this room right now, so let’s get started.”
The Data Scientist
Dr. Christina Bethell is a data scientist, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative. She flooded us with graphs and charts correlating ACEs collected in a national survey of ACEs and children’s health. She found that almost half the nation’s children — 35 million kids — have experienced one or more ACEs.
She said we need to compare ACEs with measures for flourishing children, which include curiosity, calmness, and ability to complete tasks. She stressed that ACEs is not destiny, but something we can prevent and heal through many practices, such as mindfulness training and prenatal screening to insure the health of the mother does not harm the child. She wants to see a “citizen science movement” to infuse trauma-informed models into more areas of our lives, including parenting.
Successes from the Field
A panel moderated by CYW’s Cloutier started off with Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of The California Endowment and who started out as a pediatrician. He compared Burke-Harris to Harriet Tubman and Bethell to Joan of Arc, and said the endowment was fully focused on early childhood investment because of its widespread impact on our society.
He said we should divert $3 billion of the $20 billion spent on incarceration into the “Nadine” fund and cautioned that because the “U.S. of A. responds very inconsistently to good science, it’s going to take a political fight” to fund ACEs prevention and treatment programs.
ACEs, he added, needs to become an issue in the 2018 California gubernatorial race, because it’s obvious from the almost 40 percent decline in suspension rates in state schools where the entire community supports ACEs awareness, that the programs work. He encouraged the audience to engage communities rather than work from the top down.
Michael Newman, a lawyer who heads the California State Department of Children’s Justice, a watchdog agency with the power to prosecute any organization that does not fulfill its obligations to children, said the bureau is responsive to ACEs.
Ted Lempert, president of Children Now and a former state legislator, said that the failure to support children is no longer a personal tragedy. “It’s a public tragedy when every child doesn’t get support. We need to take a multifaceted approach. We have a lot of power because people care about kids.”
Lempert emphasized that messaging is important, and we should keep it simple. “For kids, or not for kids?” is one suggestion. He cited the success the LGBT coalition achieved when it changed its message from gay rights to equality of marriage.
Ross agreed that we need to frame the ACEs issue in a positive way, and Cloutier suggested that perhaps at the next ACEs summit we might focus on language.
All panelists agreed that collective action was needed to move the movement. “This is not silo advocacy as usual,” said Ross.
“Let’s be bold,” added Lempert, “and do what the other groups, like the Chamber of Commerce, do. The key to collective action is getting silos to unite, to share credit, and engage in hard work together.”
Newman pointed out that a collaborative approach might result in fewer but more powerful legislative bills getting passed with less work required.
Putting a brake on too much enthusiasm, Ross described one hazard: ‘the curse of the fix.’ “It’s not a vaccine,” he said. He recommended we focus on just three things we want to achieve, and Lempert said maternal health support should be one of those goals.