Op-Ed: We Need to Take the Trauma Out of Childhood

Marjorie A. Paloma | April 19, 2018 | Opinion
Thousands of children in New Jersey have been through traumatic events that can have profound long-term consequences. It’s our job to help them

Marjorie A. Paloma
Childhood should not be a time of trauma. Yet, for far too many kids it is: Nearly 34 million children across the United States have experienced traumas that can have terrible long-term physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral health consequences.

This is not just a national problem. According to a new report from the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health, more than 40 percent of kids in New Jersey have been exposed to at least one traumatic event. Roughly 18 percent have had two or more such experiences. That’s more than 800,000 kids all together.

These kids’ futures are at risk.

Repeated exposure to trauma — such as being abused or neglected, suffering economic deprivation, witnessing violence, or living with someone who has a drug, alcohol, or mental health problem — causes “toxic stress.” This stress alters brain chemistry and increases children’s risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and suicide. Kids exposed to trauma are more likely to develop problems with drugs and alcohol and to become involved with the criminal justice system. And, research shows, their ability to assess risk and make healthy life decisions is seriously impaired.

How to stop this

How do we stop this from happening — and even reverse or mitigate harm to children who’ve already experienced too much trauma?

There are many ways we can invest in children — by supporting paid family leave, quality, affordable daycare and effective early childhood education; ensuring that all children can get healthcare, including behavioral and therapeutic counseling; and infusing trauma-informed approaches throughout our social safety net.

In New Jersey, for example, only 31,000 people, on average, take advantage of the state’s paid family-leave law each year. That’s about 12 percent of those who are eligible. What can we do to strengthen this program so that more children receive the nurturing and attention they need at a critical stage of their development?

It’s on us to make sure all our kids are safe, supported and protected from the day they are born and consistently throughout their childhoods. Making this happen requires all of us — local officials, business leaders, parents, educators, healthcare workers, social service providers, law enforcement and others — to work together.

Last year, New Jersey announced a $20 million expansion of Keeping Families Together, part of our state’s larger response to help families affected by the opioid epidemic. It’s also an important way to help address the effects of childhood trauma.

Culture of health

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are committed to building an enduring culture of health, across the state and the country, where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, regardless of where they live or what circumstances they were born into.

Children are at the center of our strategy. We must invest in children, in many ways and in their earliest years.

RWJF has supported a trauma-informed care training program provided by the Trenton Health Team, a community health collaborative of St. Francis Medical Center, Capital Health, Henry J. Austin Health Center and the city’s Department of Health and Human Services. Healthcare and behavioral and social service providers, as well as emergency-response personnel, educators and others who interact with children, learn how to recognize trauma in its earliest stages and gain an understanding of how to spot behaviors that cause it.

Outreach efforts support a trauma-informed care learning community, where local agencies integrate the principles of trauma-informed care into their workplaces, from front-line staff to security guards. For example, some programs designate special safe spaces, where children have a say in what the rules should be, to help increase their confidence and feelings of security.

Support their families

Supporting children means supporting their families, too, in varied ways that include schooling, job training and ensuring safe, affordable homes.

Keeping Families Together is a model supported by RWJF that combines permanent, subsidized housing with such services as addiction treatment, mental healthcare and job training for families in crisis. This support can help troubled families become more stable and stay together, safely, instead of losing their children to the child welfare system.

As a society, we need to acknowledge that health isn’t only about what happens in the doctor’s office. It’s about all the places where we live learn, work and play.

In a true culture of health, where everyone has the opportunity to live a long and healthy life, we would all recognize the very real and damaging effects of childhood trauma on health. Only then can we protect our children.

Let’s take the trauma out of childhood and help create healthier futures for all kids in our state.