Childhood Trauma Research Drives Policy in California

Professionals and advocates from varied fields including pediatrics, juvenile justice and public health, are hoping California lawmakers pass a resolution acknowledging the harmful effects that ongoing trauma has on a child’s developing brain and body.

Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra (D) introduced the Assembly Concurrent Resolution 155 – Adverse Childhood Experiences and Toxic Stress, which cleared the Assembly Health Committee on June 17, and will head to the assembly floor for a full vote sometime in August after the summer recess.

Bocanegra sits on the Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment, which was formed to find alternative ways to reduce the state’s prison population. He became sold on the need to act after hearing testimony on the severity and long-lasting effects of child trauma, which is linked to a wide range of health and social problems later in life, including prison.

The resolution won’t create laws or policy, but will serve as a proclamation that California is on board with current research, practices and interventions that will best serve the most at-risk, vulnerable populations of children.

Often a resolution will precede legislation, said Shannon Hovis, a legislative aide for Bocanegra. Hovis hopes the resolution will focus public discourse on concepts like adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and “toxic stress,” which have been slowly creeping into popular language.

Mental health professionals have long understood the drastic consequences of severe trauma for children. The notion that this is a serious public health threat has only become popular within the last couple years.

“In the last two years many more people understand they need to integrate this research into whatever it is they are doing,” said Jane Stevens, editor of ACEs Too High, a news website that reports on adverse childhood experiences. The research is a “no brainer,” she added. “We need to start by admitting that the research exists and the resolution will be the first step toward that goal.”

“The science tells us all of the cascading effects that happen within the body of a child, everything from an inability to sit still in school to executive functioning to an increase in levels of cortisol and stress,” said Suzy Loftus, Chief Operating officer at the San Francisco-based Center for Youth Wellness.

The center is a health clinic serving poor children and families affected by trauma, and Loftus said the clinic heavily factors childhood trauma into its decision making. “The chain reaction that is going to happen in the body, not just the mind, is something that we really need policy makers to understand.”

The ACE Study, a collaboration by Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, was conducted from 1995 to 1997, with a baseline of 17,000 participants, of which 9,500 adults responded to the questionnaire.

The researchers developed a screening tool to measure the trauma, basically rating a person’s childhood on a scale from 0-10. The worse someone’s childhood was the higher the ACE score, and the greater the chance the child would have medical, mental and societal problems as an adult.

For example, let’s say a child grew up with an alcoholic parent in the home, had been sexually abused, didn’t have enough food to eat and had a parent who had gone to prison. This child would get an ACE score of 4.

The study found that a child with an “ACE score” of four or more was four to 12 times more likely to experience alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt than those with zero ACEs. According to the study:

“The number of categories of adverse childhood exposures showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease.”

Overall, the study showed that 25 percent of participants had a two or higher ACE score.

A recent national study examined the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System Child File and estimated that one in eight American kids had a confirmed case of maltreatment and neglect. A confirmed case is when a social worker actually investigates an allegation of maltreatment and finds enough evidence to verify the claim.

“Child maltreatment is more common than traditionally thought,” Christopher Wildeman, lead author of the study and a professor of sociology at Yale University, told The Chronicle in June when the study was released. It is easier for society to dismiss the impact of child maltreatment when the numbers are low, he added, “but when 12.5 percent of kids are being maltreated it is much harder to ignore.”

While the resolution doesn’t have any opposition and passed the Health Committee with zero no-votes, three Republican assembly members abstained: Donald Wagner, Allan Mansoor and Jim Patterson, all of whom didn’t return calls for comment.

“It was discouraging to our office to see the three Republicans abstain,” said Hovis, explaining why they’re waiting until August to present the resolution. “It showed us there was still a lack of understanding of the topic.”

Brian Rinker is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and a recent graduate from San Francisco State University’s journalism program.

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Brian Rinker
About Brian Rinker 40 Articles
Brian is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley's School of Journalism and a freelance journalist.