Protesters gather in front of the Alaska State Capitol on Friday, Feb. 23, 2023, in support of children facing abuse and to demand the removal of Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, from the Legislature. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Child welfare advocates don’t want issues of adverse childhood experiences to be overshadowed by the recent controversial comments made by Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, to legislators. Experts in childhood trauma want to keep the focus on the impacts of adverse childhood experiences on an individual’s life.
This information was the topic of a Feb. 20 presentation the experts made on behalf of the Alaska Children’s Trust to the House Judiciary Committee.
During the presentation, Eastman commented on how the death of an abused child may save the state money since that child would not need access to state services they might otherwise be entitled to. The comment garnered intense media coverage and public scrutiny, which was troubling to Trevor Storrs, the president of the Children’s Trust.
“I think my concern is greater that the media only focuses on Rep. Eastman’s question and not the bigger picture which is that many of our children and youth and families are hurting,” he said in an interview.
Eastman’s comment was made when Storrs was relating the societal problems and negative health outcomes that can result from trauma in adolescence. “The simple way to look at this is that experiencing adversity increases risky behaviors which leads to poor physical, mental and for some, spiritual health,” he said. There are many types of adverse experiences a child may face in their life such as abuse, addiction and financial problems in the home. These experiences may lead to trauma which is associated with risky behaviors such as cigarette use, poor diet and alcohol consumption, among others, Storrs said.
Tracking adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, helps to quantify the type of trauma that a child may experience and may help explain behaviors they engage in as adults, explained Jared Parrish, a senior epidemiologist with the Alaska Department of Public Health, who gave part of the presentation.
Parrish and Storrs discussed new research that experts are pursuing through the Alaska Longitudinal Child Abuse and Neglect Linkage Project, also known as ALCANLink.
Parrish presented this “unique” project as a way to better understand the way that ACEs present in a child’s life so that public experts can know where to direct prevention efforts. The project tracks a group of children born in Alaska a decade ago, and Parrish said it provides important insight into the role of ACEs. Recent efforts focused on how household challenges as well as abuse and neglect interplay with each other before and after birth to impact a child’s life and the likelihood of their referral to child services.
The project shows that approximately one-third of children were referred to child services before their 7th birthday.
While the research reveals a disturbing trend in the number of children who experience adverse childhood experiences in adolescence, Parrish is hopeful that the results can shed light on preventative methods that may help lower the number of reports to child welfare and the number of Alaskans who suffer from trauma during childhood and beyond. “We’re really doing some amazing work here in Alaska related to ACEs. We should be proud of that…,” he said. Preventative measures might include access to quality mental and substance abuse treatment and better child care, Parrish noted in an email.
The message that I hope does not get overshadowed is that we know more than ever before about how to overcome trauma. – Linda Chamberlain, a trauma epidemiologist
The message that I hope does not get overshadowed is that we know more than ever before about how to overcome trauma.
– Linda Chamberlain, a trauma epidemiologist
Linda Chamberlain, a trauma epidemiologist who was also involved in the presentation, shared Storrs and Parrish’s hopes. “The message that I hope does not get overshadowed is that we know more than ever before about how to overcome trauma,” she said in an email. Chamberlain informed the committee about the effects of toxic stress on children, such as the impairment of a child’s learning and the development of emotional responses. Toxic stress is a prolonged stress response that can often be caused by adverse childhood experiences.
Jessica Cheeseman, a case manager for the Kenai Peninsula Reentry Coalition, also believes that overcoming childhood trauma is possible. However, her belief comes not from research but from personal experience. As a child, Cheeseman experienced a multitude of ACEs, from abuse to addiction that left her struggling through her adolescence and into adulthood.
She said that the tipping point for her was learning about what adverse childhood experiences are so that she could begin the journey of healing from a lifetime of abuse. “You have to break that cycle and do something different. But if nobody knows what that ‘different’ is, they can’t,” she said.
Education about ACEs is a common theme with advocates for child welfare. Chamberlain highlighted the significance of teaching resilience as a way to mitigate the effects of toxic stress and ACEs. For parents interested in learning more about resiliency and support resources for their families, Parrish encouraged looking at the Strengthening Families Toolkit which is provided by Strengthening Families Alaska and the Alaska Pediatric Partnership. The collaboration between the two organizations was funded by the Alaska Children’s Trust in 2016, and Parrish was excited about the possibility of the toolkit to provide help to families.
Cheeseman also advocated for increased education surrounding ACEs and childhood trauma for schools, specifically so that they can help build supportive systems through community efforts. She believes the work Parrish is doing is essential in creating better outcomes for Alaska’s children. But she said the work in spreading information about ACEs cannot be done without a collective effort. “We can’t do that unless we have community.”
Designating more resources into programs like Strengthening Families that can help parents and children deal with trauma is essential for lowering the number of children who must live with that trauma, Parrish said. But he added that it is also necessary from a cost perspective. “It [ACEs] costs a lot and healthcare costs related to ACEs, individual [and] societal costs related to ACEs, are substantial and significant. So from a public health perspective, if we can mitigate those effects we can reduce those costs to society and individuals. It has a big burden on us,” Parrish said.
Experts estimate that over $800 million goes into treating conditions related to adverse childhood experiences. Many of these conditions, like binge drinking, fall under the category of risky behaviors that Storrs warned can increase following adverse childhood experiences.
While experts noted the need to look at the issue from a cost perspective, Parrish underscored the importance of keeping a human-centric view on the issue of ACEs and childhood trauma – and more importantly, how the individuals represented in the data are more than statistics or cost burdens. He said that: “These data aren’t representing some mystical people. They are people that are in our lives working in our communities and contributing,”
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