Joining Forces for Children: Why you should understand and care about ACEs

'ACEs become biology'

CINCINNATI -- Pop quiz:

• Do you want to live in a place that has less crime?

• Do you want to live in a place that has more productive adults who contribute to the economy?

• Do you want to live in a place where fewer families need government services to get by?

If you answered “yes” to any or all of those questions, then you should care about ACEs.

The acronym stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, and it refers to traumatic events that elevate children’s stress over time and how children react to that trauma.

ACEs can be as severe as physical abuse or as commonplace as parents going through a divorce. But extensive research has shown that kids with two or more ACEs are more likely to have serious problems in school and -- more surprisingly -- are more likely to develop diseases later in life such as diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

Here’s why that is especially important in the Tri-State: Roughly one third of Cincinnati’s children have two or more ACEs, according to a 2014 study.

Dr. Robert Shapiro

“ACEs become biology,” said Dr. Robert Shapiro, director of the Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and a local expert on ACEs. “That’s a real significant impact and a real significant lesson that we now know about.”

As scary as that is, there is good news: Having two or more ACEs doesn’t doom children. There are steps families, friends, educators, health professionals and communities can take to lessen the long-term impact that trauma has on kids.

To help us all better understand what ACEs are and what we adults can do to help undo the damage, dozens of local organizations have formed Joining Forces for Children.

Joining Forces has 50 member organizations and about 200 members, Shapiro said. Its website is live now and will officially launch in the coming weeks with more information and resources.

“We’re really hopeful that we can help build a society and community where our children and families are well, where they’re not suffering from the effects of ACEs,” Shapiro said.

That’s important for reasons beyond the fact that it’s the right thing to do.

The role of cash

Shapiro explains it like this:

“This is the community we’re building,” he said. “The community is composed of the adults who were once children who grew up here and whose capacity to work, to be healthy and to be emotionally stable can be dramatically affected by how we treat our children.”

That’s why addressing the trauma caused by ACEs -- or better yet, preventing that trauma in the first place -- can help reduce crime, improve educational outcomes and result in a community with fewer families who rely on government assistance.

It’s important for adults to know that if they suffered lots of trauma as children, it’s not too late for them to get help, too, said Jim Mason, the CEO of Beech Acres Parenting Center, one of the organizations involved in Joining Forces for Children.

Jim Mason

But the best approach is to help young children as early as possible to lessen the long-term damage that ACEs can inflict, he said. That involves identifying kids who are at risk and giving them and their families the help they need to turn things around.

“Everybody’s so critical of parents who are having trouble with their kids, and they’re not doing it right. Neglecting them, not feeding them, they’re hurting them,” Mason said. “Obviously, that’s tragic, and it makes you mad to see it. But the reality is you raise your kids the way you were raised unless you change your mind.”

Beech Acres’ role is to help parents raise their children “with purpose and intentionally,” he said.

That means helping parents and kids heal and then getting families back on the right track.

While ACEs affect kids from every background and socio-economic level, they can be especially damaging for children living in poverty.

“If you have money to pay for services or get away from your environment, those are protective factors,” Mason said. “Cash is a protective factor.”

There are things that we can all do to help kids and families that don’t cost money, though.

A simple one is to show empathy, Mason said.

‘This is a public health issue’

“For a teacher to be nice to a child and to greet them when they come into a room -- those are healing gestures that any person can do in a person’s life to show them that the world is safe and help their sense of belonging,” Mason said.

Those kinds of “protective factors” can prevent childhood trauma from taking root and having long-term implications for kids’ emotional and physical health, said Tom Lottman, director of the Innovation Lab at Children Inc.

Covington-based Children Inc. is part of the Joining Forces collaborative, too, and views reducing ACEs as a critical part of its work as an agency that provides quality childcare, Lottman said.

“This is a public health issue, and it’s not just ‘oh gee, the kids grow up and do bad behaviors,’” he said. “They grow up and they have heart disease and they have diabetes. We’re talking about compromising both physical health and emotional health.”

Tom Lottman

Quality early childhood classrooms can become safe places for kids who have experienced trauma and help them build the resilience they need so that the ACEs don’t cause long-term damage, Lottman said.

“Just as ACEs have lifelong negative consequences for kids, being intentional about orchestrating positive experiences for children has lifelong benefits,” he said.

Those experiences can be simple rituals, such as being there to put children to bed at night and giving them hugs and kisses.

Neuroscience has found that children’s brains have a “built-in negativity bias,” Lottman said, which means negative things are more likely to be part of their long-term memories.

“That means we need to create positive experiences and help them hold onto those positive experiences,” he said.

Another pop quiz:

• How many ACEs do you think you have?

• Did a friend, family member or other caring adult help you build the resilience you needed to thrive despite those childhood traumas?

• What can you do to help the region’s children thrive, too?

Those questions aren’t as simple. But Shapiro and the others behind Joining Forces for Children hope the effort’s new website will help the community find the best answers.

More information about Joining Forces for Children is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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