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Stemming the tide of childhood trauma

  • Author: Laura Norton-Cruz
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 3, 2018
  • Published May 3, 2018

The Alaska state Capitol in Juneau gets some early-morning sunshine Friday, March 30, 2018. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

As parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and community members, we all know children and care about their well-being. Likely all of us know at least one child who struggles in school, who acts out in class or shuts down and withdraws, who often goes to the nurse or goes home sick, and who shows up at school late many days — if at all. Perhaps we find ourselves wondering what is the most likely cause of all these different problems and what we can possibly do to help. The good news is that there is an answer to that question and there are things we can do to make a difference.

What decades of research nationally and here in Alaska show us is that really hard times in childhood (known as "adverse childhood experiences" or "ACEs"), such as abuse and neglect or exposure to toxic stress from sources like domestic violence and substance abuse in the household or severe bullying and discrimination in the community, can have negative impacts on children that last into adulthood and even into the next generation. These impacts include most social and physical health problems you can think of, ranging from addiction and suicide to cancer and heart disease to lower graduation rates and workplace productivity. The Alaska Mental Health Board estimates that ACEs cost Alaska an estimated $447 million per year in costs related to healthcare and lost productivity.

But it doesn't have to be this way. As one of the doctors who led the first adverse childhood experiences study says, "What is predictable is preventable." We can prevent children from experiencing ACEs and we can support the children and adults who have experienced them so that their trauma does not have to lead to negative outcomes. We can stop the cycle.

The Senate has the opportunity, in the next week or so, to take a momentous step forward by passing House Concurrent Resolution 2, which addresses ACEs. By adopting this resolution, the Legislature would be building upon its previous work for children and families and making a strong commitment to consider the science of ACEs and brain architecture when crafting legislation and budgets that impact children and families.

The resolution is a framework for assessing whether or not future policy proposals would decrease childhood adversity, increase opportunities for healing and resilience, and ensure our investment in programs has a strong return. The resolution would be a tool to help the Legislature set the tone for current and future leaders to say, "Here in Alaska, we care about having healthy, safe children who grow up to become members of a strong workforce. We care about the impact of ACEs on our medical, social service, and criminal justice systems and the hundreds of millions of dollars that ACEs are costing us each year. We understand that if we want to have a vibrant, safe Alaska and a manageable budget, we have to pay attention to ACEs as we craft policy."

We know that our legislators have hard choices to make every day, and we want them to have the shared language and understanding of ACEs to support them in planning long-term solutions for the well-being of our state, our economy and workforce, our families and those who are most vulnerable, our children.

The Senate passing House Concurrent Resolution 2 would set a hopeful future direction for our state. Evidence from states like Wisconsin that have addressed ACEs on at a statewide level back up this belief — that if we apply a "trauma-informed lens" across the state, we can stem the tide on some of our most troublesome issues, including the opioid epidemic, the number of children in the social welfare system, crime, workforce readiness and health care — and see radical cost savings in the process.

Most importantly, we can move toward an Alaska where all children are safe and cared for and have opportunities in life. We thank the many senators who spoke up in recognition of April as Child Abuse Awareness Month and we thank those who have already spoken in favor of or signed on as co-sponsors of the HCR2. We applaud their leadership and ask for all members of the Senate to join them in passing this important resolution.

Please call or write your senator today to let them you know that you support HCR2 and support them passing it before they leave Juneau this session.

Laura Norton-Cruz serves as director of the Alaska Resilience Initiative, a cross-sector collaborative housed at the Alaska Children's Trust.

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