By: Liz Cox, Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa
Washington State has made significant progress in reducing the impact of ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences, resulting in billions of dollars of savings to their state budget. They’ve seen a significant decrease in high school dropout rates, teen pregnancy, attempts of suicide among youth, and an overall drop in community ACE scores in just 10 years. This is only one example of the importance of this research and creating change in communities.
Filmmaker, James Redford, released a documentary exploring the science of ACEs. Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope was released in 2016. It chronicles the promising beginnings of a national movement to prevent childhood trauma, treat Toxic Stress, and greatly improve the health of future generations.
“We started making RESILIENCE to make this science digestible and relevant to everyone, and to showcase some of the brave and creative individuals who are putting that science into action,” said Redford in his Director’s Statement.
The film continues to create discussions among teachers, policy makers, health care providers, and community members by helping audiences understand the lifelong impact of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction during childhood. In April of this year, NRI hosted a screening of the film in Cedar Rapids to bring this information to the community in hopes of continuing this dialogue. It’s important to understand the lifelong impact of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction during childhood.
In 2011, Iowa began collecting the state’s Adverse Childhood Experiences data. Prevent Child Abuse (PCA) Iowa, a network of community-based child abuse prevention councils, and community partners are sharing information about ACEs. PCA Iowa is promoting the importance of caring, trusting relationships in decreasing the impact of childhood trauma through the Connections Matter® campaign. The goal is to create thriving communities that foster resilience and reduce the intergenerational transmission of abuse and neglect.
So, how do we get there?
Here are Four Ways to Create a Resilient Community*:
*The state of Iowa will be used to demonstrate the steps.
1. Develop a Common Language
ACEs conversations create a collective understanding of what trauma and toxic stress are and what it means for the developing brain, social skills, and emotional development. Why are these conversations important? Successful change management requires that at least 75 percent of the community being impacted understand the need for the adjustment. Sharing the ACEs data within the community and discussing the significance can help establish the importance of making a change.
For example, adults in Iowa who have a history of trauma are nearly 1.5 times as likely to be diagnosed with cancer, three times as likely to have a stroke, more than four times as likely to have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and six times as likely to suffer depression. Also, 25 percent of Iowan children show signs of toxic stress. ACEs research indicates that students with high ACEs are more likely to fail a grade, be suspended, score lower on tests, and have poorer health.
Understanding the relationship between ACEs, social supports, health, and school success can shift the conversation, and thereby create an infrastructure that fosters resilience and healthy thriving communities. A thriving community with a common language has the capacity to reduce the impact of trauma and cultivate resilience.
2. Create Policy Centered on Prevention
Part of community infrastructure involves creating policy. Reducing ACEs requires collaborative work further upstream in prevention – especially in the areas of sexual abuse and neglect. The Iowa legislature showed how well they can work in the unanimous support of the Drug Endangered Children bill during the 2017 session. Unfortunately, they lost opportunities to lead conversations around sexual abuse prevention and neglect.
The community must be willing to engage in conversations centered on the interests of Iowa families. Sexual abuse and neglect are difficult topics. However, we cannot wait for tragedies such as those suffered by Natalie Finn and Sabrina Ray — who both died from malnutrition at only 16 years of age — to bring these important child protective issues forward.
As Margarete Mead, an American anthropologist, so thoughtfully quipped, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
3. Fund Evidence-Based Intervention
Proportionate funding of evidence based prevention – like parenting classes, sexual abuse prevention training for teachers, respite care, home visits, and community capacity building – is an investment that strengthens families and reduces the demands on foster care systems. With a higher foster care rate than the national average, there is an additional strain on the Iowa Department of Human Services.
In Iowa, $50 spent responding to incidents of child abuse and neglect is met with only $1 spent on prevention efforts. The spectrum of support for kids – from prevention to intervention to removal and adoption – is heavily lopsided with significant funding for family support once a child has been removed from the home.
Support from community foundations, corporations, and private donors can leverage investments from the State and Federal government to create better access to prevention services for youth.
Building resilience in our communities involves cultivating trusting and caring relationships. Critically important is our engagement with the kids in our community. The effort to lend an ear, offer a smile, or give a high-five, are incredibly meaningful to children. To you it’s homework, to them it’s teamwork. Let them know you care. The human capacity to navigate life well requires a network of friends or family members who support one another during times of stress.
States like Washington and Iowa have already demonstrated that by utilizing resources like the Resilience documentary, we can help bring ACEs research to light. The better we are able to understand ACEs, the more effective we can be in creating effective ways to reduce abuse, neglect, and stress in the lives of future generations.
Liz Cox, Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa
Liz’s career includes more than 17 years working in the fields of community betterment, leading initiatives addressing health, education, and financial issues facing Iowans. Liz led the start-up and management of a number of non-profit agencies including serving as the director of operations at the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative where she developed sustainable system-wide health and wellness engagement platforms, moving Iowa’s well-being ranking from 19th to top-10 within three years.
Liz is an elected member of the West Des Moines Community Schools Board of Education and the proud mother of three children. She and her husband, Tom, live in West Des Moines.