Lassa: Childhood Trauma Has Long-lasting Effects
By State Senator Julie Lassa
One of my ongoing concerns as a legislator has been the health of children and families. Most recently, as a member of the Legislative Council Steering Committee for Supporting Healthy Early Brain Development, I’ve been working on policies that address the impact of adverse childhood experiences on the long-term health of both our children and our communities. Those impacts are wide-ranging and affect the lives of every Wisconsin citizen.
An adverse childhood experience can be any traumatic event in a child’s life. These might include physical, emotional or sexual abuse; someone in the household with substance abuse issues; a household member who is struggling with mental health issues; violence between adults in the home; or the absence of one or both parents. These traumatic events can occur to children from all backgrounds, and they are much more frequent than many people believe. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, in the six counties of the 24th Senate District, the rate of adverse childhood experiences ranges from 15 percent to more than 20 percent.
It’s bad enough that so many children suffer abuse and neglect. What makes this public health crisis even worse, however, is that the effects of childhood trauma can stay with people well into adulthood. There is a well-documented link between adverse childhood experiences and a range of physical and mental problems, including depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, tobacco use, diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular disease. These problems can make it harder to be successful at school and work, and can increase the demands on social services and the healthcare system. And because these behaviors can create trauma for other members of the household, childhood trauma is often cyclical, with parents “passing it on” to their own children.
All of us suffer the social consequences – and bear the costs – of the prevalence of childhood trauma. As a matter of public policy, trying to address these social problems without taking into account how childhood trauma contributes to them is like trying to cure a disease by treating only the symptoms. Many of the experts testifying before the Steering Committee have been calling for trauma-informed policy to educate the general public and raise awareness on the part of persons employed in the education, child welfare, mental health, substance abuse and corrections systems of the impact of childhood trauma on the people they serve.
Trauma-informed care would include partnering with healthcare providers to include greater screening and intervention for the impact of adverse childhood experiences. Most importantly, Wisconsin can invest in proven prevention programs to prevent the maltreatment of children before it takes place.
I am optimistic that the Steering Committee for Supporting Healthy Early Brain Development will develop policy proposals that can help Wisconsin make real progress toward reducing the incidents of childhood trauma and its impact on individuals and communities. I also applaud Wisconsin First Lady Tonette Walker for making trauma-informed care one of her policy priorities. No effort could be more crucial to making life better for children today, as well as helping them become healthier, more productive adults and improving the quality of life for all of us in the future.
You can learn more about Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as ACES, at the Wisconsin Children’s Trust Fund website, wichildrenstrustfund.org. There is also a wealth of research available from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child at developingchild.harvard.edu.