Violence is just one part of childhood trauma. So why are we focusing so much on childhood violence?

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Whac-A-Mole players (photo by Laura)

Many people and organizations focus on preventing violence with the belief that if our society can stop violence against children, then most childhood trauma will be eradicated.

However, research that has emerged over the last 20 years clearly shows that focusing primarily on violence prevention – physical and sexual abuse, in particular – doesn’t eliminate the trauma that children experience, and won’t even prevent further violence.

“Although violence can beget violence, it’s hardly the only cause of violence,” says Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principal investigator of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), groundbreaking epidemiological research that showed a direct link between 10 types of childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, among many other consequences.

“Basically there’s lots of other ways,” he says. “Humiliating people. Isolating people. Verbally provoking them. All of those have potential for producing violence in response.”

In addition, violence can provoke nonviolent behavior that can be just as damaging as violence.

In other words, childhood trauma does not equal only violence.

The many types of childhood trauma

Violence is just one among many types of childhood trauma. The ACE Study found that violence is not more – or less — damaging than divorce, living with a parent who’s an alcoholic, being yelled at nearly every day of your childhood, or emotional neglect. Just as important, it rarely happens alone. If a child is experiencing violence, there’s usually some other type of trauma happening, too.

In fact, the entire approach to preventing violence against children – by focusing on only one type of trauma, by focusing on the child and ignoring the parents or caregivers, by ignoring the toxic stress imposed on the child and family by traumatizing systems – is so outdated that pioneers in this arena compare our current approach to a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole.

They propose a completely different approach, one that focuses on creating and growing resilient children, families, organizations, systems and communities. It’s an approach that moves from blame, shame and punishment, to understanding, nurturing and healing.

The ACE Study is part of what’s being called a “unified science” of human development that recasts our understanding of how to solve our most intractable problems, such as poverty and homelessness, as well as childhood trauma. It comprises five areas of research:

  • the epidemiology of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs),
  • the neurobiology of toxic stress (the brain),
  • the biomedical consequences of toxic stress (the body),
  • the epigenetic consequences of toxic stress (passing from parent to child),
  • and resilience research.

Others call this “the theory of everything” in human development or NEAR science (neurobiology, epigenetics, ACEs, resilience). I just call it ACEs science.

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Oregon psychiatrist testifies before Senate Finance Committee on the impact of childhood adversity and toxic stress on adult health

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Appearing before the powerful Senate Finance Committee  in Washington, DC, recently, Dr. Maggie Bennington-Davis, psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Health Share Oregon, devoted a significant portion of her testimony to  the role of adversity and toxic stress during childhood on adult health, both physical and emotional. She explained how Health Share Oregon—that state’s largest Medicaid coordinated care organization—examined the people with the costliest health bills and found them to have experienced high levels of childhood adversity. She told the senators that the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), first published in 1998 by Drs. Vincent Felliti and Robert Anda, found exactly this correlation.

At the April 28 hearing titled “Mental Health in America: Where are we now?,”* Bennington-Davis addressed the need to look to people’s experiences in childhoods to improve health, knowing that mental illness and substance use disorders, along with other

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When teen dating violence goes online

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By Jennifer White, Senior Attorney for Legal Programs, Futures Without Violence

This year, a film named Audrie and Daisy was part of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and will be available on Netflix later this year. The film tells the stories of two high school girls in different parts of the country whose kinship is the result of a common tragedy: both girls were sexually assaulted by boys they thought were friends.

Both girls were tortured by their communities and schools, particularly over social media. Both girls tried to take their own lives. The film highlights our failures as a nation to protect our young people, it illustrates a fundamental misapprehension about gender-based violence, it demonstrates our inclination to blame victims rather than believe them, and it vividly depicts the power and pervasiveness of social media as a weapon.

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Cherokee Point Elementary School youth leaders learn about Child Abuse Prevention month

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Jennifer Hossler and the youth leaders of Cherokee Point Elementary School in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, CA.

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Some days at work are better than others. A recent visit to Cherokee Point Elementary School in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, CA, was one of the best days I’ve had in awhile!  I had the chance to speak to a small group of youth leaders from the third, fourth and fifth grades. As a representative of the Chadwick Center for Children & Families, I came to talk with them about Child Abuse Prevention (CAP) month, which is coming up in April.  We are collaborating with Cherokee Point in an effort to bring awareness to the community about CAP month, resilience, and protective factors.

Admittedly, I was nervous!  Talking to kids about child abuse is hard, and to be honest, can be a little

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Johnna Janis makes documentary “Invisible Scars” to heal her and others’ childhood trauma

Invisible Scars“It’s about so much more than childhood sexual abuse,” says Johnna Janis about her feature documentary, Invisible Scars, a remarkable film about her own sexual abuse and her journey of recovery.

Janis produced and directed the film with long-time friend, Sergio Myers, an award-winning filmmaker and owner of 7Ponies Productions. Together, they took on topics many would consider too triggering or taboo to address and did so without sensationalizing sexual abuse or trivializing trauma. The result is a personal, powerful and informative movie.

Invisible Scars, which has been a six-year labor of love, will have a red-carpet premiere March 29 at the Harmony Gold Theater in Los Angeles, CA. It received an Award of Merit at IndieFest 2015.

What started in 2010 as a “small little project” about one woman’s healing journey “expanded” when Janis learned about the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study).

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No risk in trying new approaches to find children most in danger

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By Marie Cohen at Chronicleofsocialchange.org

In my last column, I discussed the new approaches to identify and target high-risk families for special attention in child welfare. Los Angeles and Allegheny County, PA, as well as New Zealand are working on risk assessment algorithms. Rapid Safety Feedback (RSF), which has been implemented in Florida and is being adapted to other states, targets for special attention families with characteristics associated with high risk to children.

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Miracle at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution Forest

Cindy SanfordJuan (name changed), convicted of aggravated assault at 21, has been in solitary for five years. He has seen and experienced it all: brutal cell extractions, hunger strikes, flooded pods and endless hours spent screaming at his cell door.

By the time I met him, he’d racked up over 80 misconducts in numerous prisons and earned the enmity of most of the officers forced to deal with him. Hardly your model inmate.

Yet from our very first visit, I was struck by the humility and sadness in his eyes. Somehow, despite his “bad-boy” reputation, I sensed there was more to him, something worth saving.

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