For the past few weeks, stories about the separation of children from their parents at our borders have been everywhere. For people of compassion, it’s been brutally difficult to see the images and hear the cries of children going through such terrible experiences.
Experts on childhood trauma have spoken out, seeking to help the rest of us to understand the lasting impacts these terrible experiences create. In addition to PTSD, children may endure complex trauma that creates life-long susceptibility to feelings of anger, loneliness, helplessness, fear, distrust of others, catastrophic thinking and depression.
What has been less discussed over the last few weeks is the fact that, in under-resourced communities across our state and nation, children go through experiences that can lead to PTSD and complex trauma on a daily basis.
In communities across Connecticut, children witness friends being shot; parents subjected to police stops, arrests, incarceration; friends dealing with physical or sexual abuse; siblings succumbing to drug or alcohol addiction.
These “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, have a cumulative effect, with each difficult experience increasing a child’s risks for problems that can last a lifetime — psychological issues of the sort mentioned previously, and physical manifestations that can include heart disease, chronic lung disease, cancer, and shortened lifespans.
In fact, the largest study of ACEs showed that a child who deals with four adverse childhood experiences is twice as likely to get a cancer diagnosis, four times as likely to get emphysema and seven-times more likely to experience alcoholism. Children with more than six such experiences were found to be 30-times more likely to attempt suicide.
We need to think about how to protect children – at the borders and within our communities – from the devastating impact of such experiences.
Trauma-informed approaches are what we need. Social service providers, therapists and mentors who are ready to openly discuss childhood trauma. Adults prepared to spend time listening to and supporting children in need – consistently and caringly. Because the devastating mental and physical health challenges associated with childhood trauma come from stressors that never get addressed. And studies show that a stable relationship with a supportive adult is the most powerful corrective.
At Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, our volunteer mentors are trained to be there for their Little Brothers and Sisters – listening, giving support, and if need be, working with parents to seek therapeutic supports. Many great organizations working with children in need – like Community Mental Health Affiliates, the Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital, Klingberg Family Centers, the Village for Families and Children, Wellmore and Wheeler Clinics – provide specialized, therapeutic support for children who have been through more than any child should see.
Many children who need intervention and support, however, are not getting it.
That’s why diversion programs are so important. Juvenile Review Boards (JRB’s) – comprised of an array of leaders from the community, typically including local youth service bureaus, social workers, community police officers, youth service specialists, and child psychologists – develop diversionary plans for young people who have gotten in some trouble with the law, but aren’t yet enmeshed in the juvenile justice system.
Our organization and many others welcome JRB referrals, as the young people involved want to get their lives back on track. And, more often than not, that involves addressing their childhood traumas and developing healthy ways to deal with the effects and move forward.
It has been extremely painful for many of us to see the images of children housed in giant detention centers that our country’s immigration policies have created. How much more painful will it be if, for those children and the millions of others facing childhood trauma, we fail to give them the supports and paths to success they need?
Let us take the concern we all feel for children at risk, and make sure we focus it on constructive action: Acknowledging the childhood trauma that’s so much more common than most of us care to admit, strengthening supports for the children going through it, and ensuring our systems of justice, education, health care and human services all are informed by it.
That could be the greatest good to come from these images that haunt us.
Andy Fleischmann is President & CEO of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, a nonprofit mentoring organization that serves children in 132 of Connecticut’s cities and towns. He also serves in the Connecticut General Assembly, Chairing the Education Committee and representing West Hartford’s 18th Assembly District.