Talking ACEs and building resilience in prison

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They’re the forgotten, the 2.3 million people in US prisons. The overwhelming majority of them have experienced significant childhood trauma. Before you click out of here, this isn’t another boo-hoo story, as some of you might describe it, about the dismal state of our corrections system, for inmates and guards alike. (Oh, yes, it is profoundly dismal.) This is a story about how one tiny part of it isn’t so dismal, and actually addresses head-on the fact that most (91 percent) of the approximately 2.3 million prisoners will finish their sentences and go home. To your neighborhood. So….wouldn’t you want the prisons to help these guys and gals so that they, and by definition, we, come out happier and more well-adjusted than when they went in?

Well, yea-uh.

Ok. Just in case you glossed over it, let’s go back to that sentence about childhood trauma. It is precisely why the 2,300 inmates at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash., ended up there. Over the last 20 years some profound, intense research revealed that people who have a lot of childhood adversity have seven times the risk of becoming an alcoholic, 12 times the risk of attempted suicide, twice the risk of cancer and heart attacks. They’re more violent, more likely to be victims of violence, have more broken bones, more marriages, and use prescription drugs more often than people who have no childhood adversity. And those are just the few drops in the bucket of how childhood trauma affects people’s lives.

A big surprise in the groundbreaking CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) — besides that most of us have at least one ACE — was how “normal” and ordinary some of the types of adversity are. Seeing your parents divorce. Living with a family member who’s an alcoholic or depressed, as well as having other mental illness. Verbal abuse, which includes being screamed at every day as well as being quietly told by your mother, “I wish you’d never been born, you freak.” Then there’s the stuff that you expect will mess with your head — physical and sexual abuse. Physical neglect. Emotional neglect — hardly being acknowledged or talked to during your entire childhood. Watching your mother being hit. And having a family member in prison. Since the ACE Study was published, dozens of other ACE surveys showed similar results. Recognizing that definitely more than 10 types of ACEs exist, other surveys have included racism, bullying, witnessing violence outside the home, serious illness or accident in the family, experiencing war, losing a family member to deportation, ending up in foster care, etc.

All these experiences damage the function and structure of kids’ brains. Kids experiencing trauma act out. They can’t focus. They can’t sit still. Or they withdraw. Fight, flight or freeze – that’s a normal and expected response to trauma. Kids who are experiencing trauma live in survival mode. So, they have a really hard time shifting their attention from survival brain to learning brain. Their schools often

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Those who separate immigrant children from parents might as well be beating them with truncheons

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Central American asylum seekers, including a Honduran girl, 2, and her mother, are taken into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border in June in McAllen, Texas.

They all agree. Physicians for Human Rights. American Medical Association. American Academy of Pediatrics. American Psychiatric Association. National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. 

Separating children from their parents or caregivers hurts children. Between April 19 and May 31, nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents. As Celeste Fremon reported in WitnessLa,  that number has now passed 2,300 children (and is increasing by more than 60/day), with another 11,000 locked up in everything from large cages to a converted Walmart. 

“To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma,” says a petition signed by more than 9,000 mental health professionals and 172 organizations.

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ACEs science can prevent school shootings, but first people have to learn about ACEs science

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David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks at a rally calling for more gun control. Photo by Jonathan Drake / Reuters

After 17 people, mostly teens, were shot and killed by another teen last week in Parkland, FL, what seems to be a real movement is growing, propelled by kids devastated by their friends’ deaths and wanting to prevent such a massacre from ever happening again.

Their rallies and marches and lie-downs probably won’t have much effect in the short-term, as some of the Parkland teens learned as they witnessed — and some of them wept during — today’s lightning vote by state lawmakers along party lines to end debate on an assault weapons ban, which killed any further consideration of the bill in the Florida legislature’s current session.

But their persistence can make a difference in the long run, especially if they — and we — widen this to include the dozens of kids shot on the streets of Chicago or Camden or in other communities every week. We can even broaden the approach to include the 200 people, including many children, who died in Syrian air strikes in the last two days, because the roots and solutions are the same.

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Book review: “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity” by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris

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Dr. Nadine Burke Harris debuted her book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, at the Philadelphia Free Library this evening in a talk and book signing.

This first stop in an ambitious book tour that crisscrosses the country reflects a mission that Burke Harris has pursued for nearly a decade: to spread the knowledge about the science of adverse childhood experiences, and about how people can use this knowledge to help solve our most intractable problems. (Her TED Talk has nearly 3.5 million page views.)

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‘Christmas Crime’ injects humor into a difficult subject

Sarah Ann Masse forwarded this just before Christmas, but I didn’t see it until after. Nevertheless, even though it has a holiday theme, it’s still worth watching, because We Are Thomasse have added a very clever twist — and wonderful clarity — to the sexual harassment and abuse issues that have surfaced over the last few months.

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We can’t stop sex harassment by firing or incarcerating our way out; we can stop it by using ACEs science

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So, Harvey Weinstein has gone to ground, along with Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Kevin Spacey, to name a few, and they’re likely never to work in their chosen fields again. This week, federal Appeals Court Judge Alex Kosinski retired after 15 women, including former clerks, accused him of sexual misconduct. Do a search for “sexual harassment” and stories about dozens of men across a variety of professions appears.

Sexual harassment is everywhere – all professions, including higher education, and all walks of life (see the NYTimes article about women who work in Ford’s Chicago plants). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that 60% of women report having experienced sexual harassment. That’s 45 million women. Forty-five million. And a much smaller, but still in the millions, number of men have also been sexually harassed by their male or female bosses.

The solutions so far — Fire them! Jail them! Destroy them! — might garner some headlines and short-term satisfaction. The solutions certainly fit our traditional approach of using blame, shame and punishment to attempt to change human behavior.

But we can’t fire or imprison our way out of this — it’s too big and too complex. Here’s why:

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Wisconsin aims to be first trauma-informed state; seven state agencies lead the way

Here in California, many people think that it’s only liberal Democrats who have a corner on championing the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and putting it into practice. That might be because people who use ACEs science don’t expel or suspend students, even if they’re throwing chairs and hurling expletives at the teacher. They ask “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” as a frame when they create juvenile detention centers where kids don’t fight, reduce visits to emergency departments and shrink teen pregnancy rates….among many other things.

Because they do all this and more by abandoning the notion of trying to change people’s behavior by punishing, blaming or shaming them, and instead using understanding, nurturing and healing, some people might think this approach belongs to the purview of one political party.

Mmmmmm….Not so fast.

To paraphrase Tonette Walker, the First Lady of Wisconsin, married to Republican Governor Scott Walker, who was a GOP presidential candidate in 2016:

That’s ridiculous.

Her exact words were: “It’s ridiculous that people say this is a Democratic or Republican issue. We all care about issues concerning families and children. We all care about the outcome of people’s lives, no matter who you are.”

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