Mass shootings and the news media: Catching up to the science of PACEs

How do we, as a country, learn about mass shootings and gun violence? The news media. How do we learn about the best approaches to prevent mass shootings and gun violence? The answer should be “the news media”, but it’s not. Yet.

People who know about the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs) understand that PACEs are at the root of violence. The news media is getting there. In the last couple of years of mass shootings, more articles examined the childhood of the shooter, but more could be done, as I pointed out in essays I wrote after the Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, shootings.

After last week’s mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, two new threads appeared:

  1. A deep look at the shooter’s family (and this) to address the question: Are the parents to blame?
  2. And the growing number of online communities of mostly male youth or young men that glorify violence and are obsessed with nihilism. “I’ve described this as sort of like a mass shooter creation machine,” said Alex Newhouse, deputy director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in an interview with NPR’s Odette Yousef. “A lot of these communities are designed to spin out mass shooters over time, over and over and over.”

My take on examining shooter’s families: I think it’s great to report what happened in a shooter’s family…as long as a reporter takes a trauma-informed approach. That means reporting without using words of blame, shame or punishment…so a headline that says “Are the parents to blame?” would change to “What happened in that family?”

Parents pass on ACEs—and positive childhood experiences (PCEs), for that matter—to their children. So, if they aren’t cognizant of their own ACEs, how can they possibly understand their child’s ACEs? And where did parents get their ACEs and PCEs? From their parents and environment. How to break the cycle? Educate families, organizations and communities about PACEs science, and integrate practices and policies based on PACEs science in all organizations in every community.

My take on the online cultures of violence: At the moment, the proposed solutions are to understand the subculture and moderate the content. “It’s not hard to figure out where different violent spaces are,” Emmi Conley, an independent researcher of far-right extremist movements, digital propaganda and online subcultures told NPR. “What’s hard is what do you do once you find one, if the red flag still falls within free speech territory. Because currently we have no intervention abilities, we only have law enforcement.” I have another idea: It seems to me that these subcultures provide a perfect opportunity to reach out and help youth who are in dire need of a caring adult and counseling. That’s a project worth funding!!

Ongoing issues: There’s the ongoing issue of the news media’s obsession with mass shootings, while mostly ignoring aggregate shootings, which receive little attention. And then the dire news of too many incidents of violence that lead news organizations to not cover important stories, and in almost every community, not cover the type of violence that costs communities the most in heartbreak and dollars—family violence. This headline in the Washington Post points out that mass shootings may be going the way of family violence coverage—too little coverage to help a community figure out how to prevent the violence. There are too many mass shootings for the U.S. media to cover: News organizations must make agonizing decisions about which shootings deserve on-the-ground reporting, and for how long.

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Supreme Court justices and originalism: A legacy of ACEs

Just as millions of other people over the last few days, we’re still reeling from the news of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe v. Wade. One overpowering emotion after another hit us—we’re sad, devastated, numb, livid. So many parts of people’s lives are affected that it’s overwhelming to try to comprehend. It’s not just the 40 million women of childbearing age who live in states where access to abortion will be prohibited, but the millions of women who need an abortion because of health reasons. What happens when you live in a state where the first answer is “NO!”?? And it’s much more complicated and generational than that.

Ingrid Cockhren, PACEs Connection’s CEO, thought about how mothers being forced into birthing children puts those children at risk in so many ways, and the historical context of women being treated as property. Carey Sipp, who is PACEs Connection’s director of strategic partnerships, noted that the most “abhorrent rolling back to the dark ages” aspect of the ruling forces women who are raped and girls who are raped by relatives or friends of family (which are most rapes) to live with the consequences of those horrors with no ability to escape the past. The criminalization of pregnant women and their caregivers. The likelihood of a 33% increase in the pregnancy-related deaths of Black women. We could go on.

“It’s all just bad,” says Rafael Maravilla, our network manager.

In light of the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences, my main question is: What happened to you, Justices Alito, Thomas, Kavanaugh, Barrett and Gorsuch? What happened to you in your childhoods, your formative years, that led you to blithely unleash such cruelty and incoherence? What happened to you, Justices Kavanaugh, Barrett and Gorsuch that you could nonchalantly testify that you regarded Roe v. Wade as established precedent, which meant that you weren’t going to consider overturning it? It’s obvious now that was misleading at best, a lie at worst.

We know what happened to former President Donald Trump during his childhood, and some of what happened to Russian President Vladimir Putin. We don’t know what happened in the originalist judges’ childhoods, but I am willing to venture that they experienced some adversity, otherwise why would they support the concept of constitutional originalism? It’s not an innocent concept. It clearly harms people.

I’ve always said that it’s not a person (with ACEs and few positive childhood experiences) with a gun or knife who does the most damage; it’s the people (with ACEs and few PCEs) who have great power who can do the most damage. And I believe that, as in the case of Trump and Putin, the originalist justices on this Supreme Court not only have great power, but are using it unwisely in a way that is causing great harm. It’s possible that by their actions they don’t mean to do great harm, but that’s a consequence of ACEs and not enough PCEs, too. (What ACEs/PCEs Do You Have?)

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There’s no mystery to what happened in Uvalde; there were many opportunities to prevent it .

Thousands of parents, pediatricians, social workers, educators, community advocates, kids, judges, police, district attorneys know exactly what led to Salvador Rolando Ramos running into a school and slaughtering 19 kids and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. And what could have derailed his path, as well as the path of all other recent mass shooters.

To people educated about the consequences of too many childhood adversities and too few positive experiences, what happened in Uvalde is not a mystery.

Research has established that:

  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are the root cause of most of our economic, social, physical and mental health issues.
  • People with more than four types of ACEs and few positive childhood experiences have an extraordinarily high risk of violence as both victims and perpetrators, cancer, heart disease, mental illness, alcoholism and drug use, and dying prematurely.
  • What’s an ACE? The 10 in the original CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study include physical and emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect, sexual abuse, a parent who is addicted to alcohol or other drugs, who is depressed or mentally ill, a mother who is abused, an incarcerated family member, divorced or separated caregivers. More than 30 other ACEs have been added since the 1998 study include bullying, racism, community violence, and homelessness.
  • People who are denied economic stability, adequate housing, education and wealth because of local, state and federal policies (a.k.a., ‘being poor’) are burdened with the highest ACEs but have fewer resources to mitigate toxic stress stemming from ACEs; in the U.S., inequities are compounded by racism affecting people of color and other minorities. But as the last three weeks of shootings show, everybody has ACEs or is affected by them.

Ramos had, at minimum, five types of childhood adversity that lasted for years. He experienced extreme bullying; an abusive relationship with his mother; his mother’s reported substance abuse; an absent father; and a disability (stuttering, lisp) for which kids taunted him mercilessly. We know little about his early childhood, where more ACEs may be lurking.

A child that experiences toxic stress from ACEs exhibits a fight, flee or freeze response. Ongoing toxic stress damages kids’ developing brains, and leads to them to exhibit coping behaviors, such as engaging in violence. Ramos coped with his distraught feelings by harming himself (he cut his face repeatedly with a knife) and violence, including fighting often with peers.

Of the seven positive experiences that research shows can ameliorate ACEs, Ramos apparently had only two: neighbors who cared about him and, until a while before the shooting, friends. As for the other ways that could have probably prevented him going on a shooting rampage—able to talk with his family about his feelings, feeling as if his family stood by him in tough times, participating in community, a sense of belonging in high school, and feeling safe and protected by an adult in the home—he clearly had none.

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The myth of survivor solidarity: Why it’s so hard for us to all just get along

As a Weinstein survivor, I’ve noticed that journalists love to explore the presumed solidarity among “sister survivors” – in our case, the over 100 women who came forward about Weinstein’s sexual predation. But what journalists don’t write about are the challenges in preventing any group of trauma survivors from imploding. Only when we survivors understand the impact of trauma can we overcome the underlying forces that threaten to pull us apart and stand together against injustice and abuse.
 
Journalists often look for a “feel good” element to a story, particularly when reporting on distressing subjects. It makes sense. Why not try for a little positivity when there is enough bad news nowadays to sink us into overwhelming despair? As a Weinstein survivor, I’ve noticed that one positive spin journalists love to explore is a presumed solidarity among “sister survivors” – in our case, over 100 women who came forward publicly to recount our personal experience of Weinstein’s long reign of sexual predation.

Trauma, anger
Trauma, anger. Photo @Melanie Wasser for Unsplash.

Solidarity among survivors is a value I happily embraced, the idea of us coming together to support each other as more and more victims of high-profile abusers courageously stepped forward to join the ranks of those who cried, “Me too!” For my part, I have spent the last four years talking with survivors and connecting individuals to create a network of mutual support. It felt like an act of sedition in the face of powerful men and an at-times indifferent establishment. Still, I should have known that this camaraderie would develop stress points and, in some cases, fall apart. Interpersonal trauma in particular often results in a distrust of other people and a host of other protective responses that work against cohesiveness. In the refreshingly honest words of one interviewee in an article about community trauma: “…traumatized people interacting with other traumatized people – a community can really run the risk of imploding” (1).

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How Vladimir Putin’s childhood is affecting us all

Examine Vladimir Putin’s childhood and you will see an eerie parallel to the atrocities playing out in Ukraine today. His life is a stark example of how childhood adversity is the root cause of most social, economic and mental health issues, as well as violence and chronic disease, as the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences demonstrates.

And while we can’t change the Russian president, we can encourage and educate people not to create more Putins by recognizing how childhood adversity impacts us throughout our lives and by integrating solutions into our healthcare, education, justice and economic systems.

Born in 1952 Leningrad, Putin was a street kid in a city devastated by a horrific, three-year siege by the Nazis during WWII, a genocide described as the world’s most destructive siege of a city. Most of the population of three million people died, one million starving to death. Putin’s father was badly injured in the war, his mother nearly died of starvation. Living in a rat-infested apartment with two other families, the family had no hot water, no bathtub, a broken-down toilet, little or no heat. His father worked in a factory; his mother did odd jobs she could find. A small child, whose two older siblings are believed to have been lost to war and disease, Putin was left to fend for himself, severely bullied by other children.

From his parents he inherited their wartime trauma personified by Nazi forces threatening their existence, ravaging their city and killing their friends and family. With his parents struggling to survive, they were absent or too traumatized to be attentive to their son. There’s no mention of other family members: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Kindness and affection didn’t seem to have been part of the child Putin’s world.

While the experiences of childhood adversity piled up, two positive experiences changed his trajectory: After years of being labeled a troublemaker in school, a sixth-grade teacher helped him realize his potential. He excelled in high school, learned judo to defend himself, got a law degree and was selected to join the KGB. But the damage that led to his current behavior was done. It produced a machismo man, distrustful and unpredictable, and who cultivates disinformation to advance his own agenda at any cost. 

In her essay, The Ignorance or How We Produce the Evil,” psychologist Alice Miller wrote: “Children who are given love, respect, understanding, kindness and warmth will naturally develop different characteristics from those who experience neglect, contempt, violence or abuse and never have anyone they can turn to for kindness and affection. Such absence of trust and love is a common denominator….All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty, although they themselves steadfastly denied this.”

Research shows that early abuse and neglect damages an infant’s developing brain. If a child suffers abuse and neglect for years without intervention, the consequences can be dire. As Dr. Bruce Perry, co-author with Oprah Winfrey of What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing, says, the more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely they will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.” 

But without that love in their childhoods, abused people in power can do serious damage. Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedung all suffered years of merciless beatings and other unconscionable abuse in childhood and went on to be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. In Mao’s case, 35 million people. Of course, dictators can’t become dictators absent an environment that supports their ability to accumulate power. In The Real War, Richard Nixon pointed out that the “Darwinian forces of the Soviet system produce not only ruthless leaders, but clever ones.” Stalin killed nearly a million people each year he was in power; in 1938 he sent Khrushchev to Ukraine where he proved his ruthless ways by eliminating 163 out of 166 members of that country’s Central Committee. Of course, not everyone who has an abusive childhood grows up to abuse others; but it’s safe to say that all abusive dictators and autocrats had a childhood filled with abuse and/or neglect, and not enough love. 

So, Putin’s statements on and after Feb. 23, are chilling and revealing: “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by

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Dear Gannett: Great start! Now go the distance.

Gannett launches a network-wide push to rework its crime coverage.” It’s about damn time. We advocated this more than 20 years ago, and we go a LOT further in our suggestions to make crime reporting more relevant, less racist and more useful to communities.

Berkeley Media Studies Group, a public health research organization, launched the Reporting on Violence project throughout California in 1997 and expanded it to interested newsrooms across the U.S. in 2001. The second edition of “The Reporting on Violence: A Handbook for Journalists” came out in 2001. The first, which came out in 1997, was distributed to more than 950 journalists and 100 newsrooms. I wrote the handbooks. Dr. Lori Dorfman, BMSG’s director, edited them. Together, we led the project, which was funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and The California Wellness Foundation.

The immediate response was great—we did workshops in all the major newsrooms in California. But things didn’t change the way I’d hoped. A few news organizations included a few contextual questions in their reporting from time to time, but none changed their crime reporting. The data we gathered inspired the San Jose Mercury News (more info below) to do a series on domestic violence, but despite reporters asking to develop a domestic violence beat, the editors said no.

Remarkably, the basics of crime reporting haven’t changed much since the late 1890s (essentially, the man-bites-dog approach). Why is it taking so long for this change to happen? The irony is that although change is journalism’s bread and butter, getting the journalism community to modernize is like moving a mountain with a spoon and a bucket.

I am a longtime health, science and technology journalist. When I wrote the Reporting on Violence handbook, I’d been covering the epidemiology of violence off and on for several years, after the CDC began taking the same approach to violence and violence prevention as they had with smoking and smoking prevention, and motor vehicle accidents and their prevention. I realized that my profession was part of the problem in how the general public understood violence, and I wanted to do something about it.  

Now Gannett is beginning to make some rudimentary changes. After two years of experimenting in its news organizations in Rochester, NY, and Phoenix, AZ, Gannett is rolling out these revisions across its 250 newsrooms.

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Donald Trump’s ACEs; the mob’s ACEs

Photograph by Craig Ruttle / Redux

As I post this, the U.S. Senate is in the middle of the second trial of former President Donald Trump, after the U.S. House of Representatives impeached him for the second time.

Several people have asked me why I had not written about the events of Wednesday, January 6, 2021, sooner — a traumatizing day that will be seared in our long history of trauma in this country. Basically, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, because this isn’t over.

I was also listening to what people in the ACEs movement were saying about the insurrection on January 6. We were all pretty much saying the same things that most people in the nation and the world were saying. First, about the violence, which was horrendous, terrifying, unreal. And then further disbelief, as well as rage, about why a mob of mostly White rioters was let loose on the U.S. Capitol, the people’s house, for six hours without consequences when just months before Black Lives Matter protestors who were practicing their First Amendment rights and were not violent, were tear-gassed, beaten, and arrested.

Below, I’m re-posting an article published last July about how former President Trump’s childhood adversity shaped his life, based on an amazing book by his niece, Mary Trump. The insurrection of January 6 demonstrated how much he has shaped ours in his run-away four-year screeching, careening metaphorical train wreck. Many people warned of this; Mary Trump could see it coming. At the root of all his actions over the last decades, and especially during his presidency, is his childhood trauma.

Adverse childhood experiences are also at the root of the behavior of people in the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol. People who are happy and healthy, who have a promising future for themselves and their children — i.e., those that have had enough positive childhood experiences to counter the inevitable adverse childhood experiences — those people don’t storm buildings, don’t erect posts with a noose, don’t threaten the Vice-President of the United States and the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives with a guillotine or hanging.

But we’re stuck in a generational escalation of ACEs. Idaho just did an ACE study and found that an astonishing 23 percent of adults, who are overwhelmingly White, have an ACE score of 4 or more. The original ACE Study showed 12 percent of adults with ACEs. Too many ACEs lead to substantial violence, being a victim of violence, chronic disease and mental illness (more information in the article below). People who have an overabundance of ACEs live out their lives in a number of predictable ways: They endure lives of depression, over-achieving, extreme anger, and/or anxiety. People who use anger to cope with their ACEs will latch onto anything that satisfies the craving for hate, including racism, hate groups, misogyny, etc., just as opiates satisfy the craving for relief from depression and anxiety. Fueling their hate is the belief that the world is a dangerous place, based on the traumatic experiences seared into their tiny bodies and brains when they were babies.

On January 6, 2021, most White people had yet another awakening (after George Floyd last year). Most Blacks and Native Americans did not, because they already knew that this country was not a safe place. They have already experienced this violence, for centuries. Those of us who didn’t understand what Donald Trump represented now realize that we have a very long way to go to create a nation of communities that are self-healing.

At ACEs Connection, and in the ACEs movement, we’re in this for the long haul. We know it will take a long time for the country as a whole to heal. I hope we’ve made a strong start. I hope our efforts come in time…to ameliorate the hurt in this country, to have enough individual and community resilience to survive, and perhaps even thrive, during these next decades of climate change.

Trump’s story is a cautionary tale for all of us. For many people, the January 6 insurrection put the last four years into a different and dangerous light. Ahhh, hindsight. But the basic rule is: Hurt people hurt people, no matter how much or little money or prestige they have. Without significant intervention and healing, people who have significant childhood adversity — and little of the necessary nurturing required as babies and toddlers to grow into healthy adults — are incapable of change. That’s why Mary Trump kept saying her uncle would remain on his destructive path. I hope we put the knowledge to good use in future elections.

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The myth of motive in mass shootings

AElPaso

Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas Morning News

Almost the first thing you hear out of the mouths of police after a mass shooting is: “We’re looking for a motive.”

In Gilroy, CA, the FBI is investigating the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival as domestic terrorism. In El Paso, TX, police are describing the shooting as a possible hate crime and act of domestic terrorism, and focusing on the manifesto written by the shooter. Police in Dayton, OH, are still looking for a motive for why 24-year-old Connor Betts murdered nine people in 30 seconds.

But if we want to prevent shootings, asking about motive will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question. Police might feel as if they have an explanation for why 19-year-old Santino William Legan murdered three people, and why 21-year-old Patrick Crusius murdered 22 people. But motives don’t explain the roots of why those three young men, or any other mass shooters or bombers, foreign or domestic, start their journey as innocent babies and end up on a road to killing people. And in those roots, are our solutions.

If you use the lens of the science of adverse childhood experiences, the answer reveals itself, and usually pretty quickly.

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

Aimmigrants
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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The practice of ACEs science in the time of Trump

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As with any remarkable change, the 2016 presidential election, a swirl of intense acrimony that foreshadowed current events, actually produced a couple of major opportunities. It stripped away the ragged bandage covering a deep, festering wound of classism, racism, and economic inequality. This wound burst painfully, but it’s now open to the air and sunlight, the first step toward real healing. The second opportunity is how the election and its aftermath are engaging more Americans from many different walks of life. The election brought out people who hadn’t voted in years; its aftermath has engaged people who’d counted on someone else to do their citizenship work for them. All these people — all of us — now have an opportunity to work together to solve our most intractable problems. That knowledge is embodied in the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

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