Childhood traumas: NJ releases first-in-nation plan to fight them

Children from all races and economic groups affected. Research suggests Black and brown children more likely to suffer multiple traumas
Credit: Alexas Fotos from Pixabay
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New Jersey officials released the nation’s first community-driven statewide plan to prevent and reduce the damage done by childhood traumas like abuse, neglect and extreme poverty, which can harm the health and welfare of families for generations.

The NJ ACES Statewide Action Plan outlines strategies to help government agencies, health, education and social service organizations and members of the public better understand and address adverse childhood experiences, or ACES.

More than 40% of children in New Jersey have experienced at least one such trauma and experts said the problem has likely been exacerbated recently with the pandemic, the resulting economic downturn and the ongoing struggle for racial justice.

While adverse childhood experiences impact all races and economic groups, research suggests Black and brown children are more likely to suffer multiple traumas — including the impact of generations of racism — and less likely to have access to resources that can help them heal from this damage. The coronavirus also has had an outsize impact on minority communities.

“We’re already discussing how the COVID pandemic is an adverse childhood experience on its own” with impacts that will last generations, said Christine Norbut Beyer, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, which oversees the ACES initiative. “But despite the challenges, today is really a day of hope,” she said during an online event to announce the plan.

The document, released Thursday, builds on several years of work by DCF in conjunction with a trio of philanthropic organizations — the Burke Foundation, The Nicholson Foundation, and the Turrell Fund — and the nonprofit Center for Health Care Strategies. This collaborative released a report on the adverse experiences in New Jersey in 2019 and began work on an action plan.

“We could not reach all the families in need without your support,” Gov. Phil Murphy said during the event, noting he was “deeply grateful” for the foundations’ support. “Even if we batted 1,000, no entity like government could do this alone.”

‘Shifting a culture’

Last year, DCF created the Office of Resilience — the only entity of its kind in the nation — to oversee the work and brought in Dave Ellis, a Minnesota resident with decades of experience, to lead the effort; while Ellis works as part of DCF, his salary is paid by the three foundations. “Preventing ACES means changing lives — literally changing the trajectory of generational adversity,” Ellis said. “We’re talking about shifting a culture here. And that’s going to take time.”

“There is no doubt we have a significant number of children in our state who are traumatized by adverse childhood experiences. And these are experiences that, if there is no intervention, children will grow into adulthood carrying that baggage,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said at Thursday’s event.

New Jersey’s plan is unique, but it draws from successful policies implemented elsewhere, including community-driven initiatives in Washington state that led to fewer arrests and suicides among young people and a decline in domestic violence. Beyer of the Department of Children and Families said it also builds upon ongoing work in the Garden State, like programs to expand training in trauma-informed care and connect new mothers with support services.

Ellis and Beyer stressed that those most impacted by adverse childhood experiences will lead the work on the plan, whose implementation depends on collaboration among government agencies, nonprofit service providers and community organizations. The Office of Resilience will support these efforts and work with an inter-agency task force comprised of high-level state officials to identify policy changes and budget opportunities that advance the plan, they said.

The ACES action plan recommends a technical assistance center be set up to serve as a clearinghouse for information and data and which would convene related discussions. It would also develop state standards for designating organizations as meeting state requirements to address ACES and support ACES-related training efforts.

Resilience and ‘self-healing’

Training in trauma-informed care, or what Ellis calls “self-healing care,” recognizes the lasting impact of trauma, considers the coping mechanisms some people develop as a result and seeks to benefit the emotional and physical health of both the patient and their family. The plan calls for expanding access to these programs for members of the community, teachers, health care providers, members of law enforcement and eventually other groups.

The plan notes the Office of Resilience will work with the governor’s office and other state agencies to expand understanding of such early experiences and develop internal policies to protect and aid public workers who have experienced trauma. Staff will also work across government to develop trauma-informed public policies and identify funding to support the work and priorities of county-based and community organizations. Ellis and Beyer stressed how these decisions will not just be informed but driven by those who have gone through adverse childhood experiences.

A statewide public awareness and “mobilization” campaign would also be launched under the plan, building on the presence of the NJ Resiliency Coalition website to help more people understand the prevalence of these harmful experiences in children and how to reduce the impact of these traumas. Each strategy included in the plan has a list of “potential outcomes,” but Ellis and Beyer said specific goals will be identified by the nongovernmental stakeholders leading the initiative.

“This is really life-changing work,” said First Lady Tammy Murphy, who joined the online launch of the plan and noted the work will also support the goals of her Nurture New Jersey campaign to improve maternal health and reduce racial disparities. “This can effect change that will ripple through the lives of New Jersey families for decades to come.”

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