‘We all have a role to play’ in addressing childhood trauma

State official says ‘The problem is bigger than one agency can address in a vacuum’

We all have a role to play.

That was an important theme in the keynote message New Jersey Department of Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer delivered Thursday to kick off NJ Spotlight News’ virtual roundtable on ACES, or adverse childhood experiences.

Studies show 40% of New Jersey children have experienced traumas or other adverse experiences — like abuse, poverty, divorce and death — that can have long-term, even generational, impact on their health and well-being.

Beyer outlined the development of the state’s new ACES action plan, unveiled in February, but stressed government alone can’t make it a success. “The solution can’t come from within child welfare alone. ACES can have an impact on every facet of a person’s economic well-being, long-term health, social connections, housing, likelihood for substance use and more,” she said.

“As such, we all have a vested interest in mitigating the effects of these. The problem is bigger than one agency can address in a vacuum,” Beyer continued. “We all have a role to play.”

Following her remarks, a diverse group of experts discussed the plan’s unique attributes, the role of different stakeholders, the impact of COVID-19 on ACES and other related subjects during a spirited hourlong panel discussion. Edited excerpts from the event, which was moderated by the author, are below.

Dave Ellis, executive director of the DCF’s Office of Resilience, on the action plan itself:

This plan is one that was specifically designed with community in mind. In fact, if you look through the forty-seven pages, you’re going to find language directly from the community itself. So this is not something that was created in a vacuum, and that’s part of what makes it really so special. And it’s what people across the country are beginning to recognize — that this plan was designed by the community and it is designed in such a way that the community is leading (and) that they are now decision-makers in the process of how services serve them.”

It is a ”total shift in the way that we do business. Typically what we have is government in the lead in doing everything, and then we have, whether it’s government or the philanthropic community coming in to help support that,” Ellis said. “But we also want the community to drive (the process) and we want the community to tell us what works and what doesn’t, rather than us going in and say(ing), ‘Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’”

Dr. Arturo Brito, executive director, The Nicholson Foundation, one of several philanthropic organizations supporting the work, on this collaborative process:  

“Where the solutions lie is truly in the community, so it’s an equal partnership between state government, the private sector, which is not just limited to philanthropy — or should not just be limited to philanthropy — and community. And as Dave said, this is not something that just developed over a few months. We’ve been working on this for nearly three years,” he said. “But we’ve incorporated and involved community at every step of the way to make sure that those most impacted by childhood trauma have a voice. And are decision-makers, not just window dressing, as you said.”

Ashanti D. Jones, community engagement manager, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, on the need for community input:

“And I really do love the fact that we allow people with ACES to have a seat at this table because we really are the ones who are going to be able to frame this issue as a public health issue, but also give insight on solutions. Inclusion really provides a really diverse analysis of the different paths to resilience that we can take. And considering that that path looks different for everyone, giving space for diverse, impacted people really helps us create an inclusive approach to mitigation and even prevention, especially when we’re talking about policy recommendations. And I think that the state’s plan is really fluid and it has this inclusiveness to it that really encompasses everything that I just said. And I’m really grateful that it was designed that way. I’m really excited about the implementation of this project.”

Alisha De Lorenzo, interim deputy director, Garden State Equality, on how teachers can make a difference:

“I think it’s a heavy burden for educators to have to be tasked with interrupting burdens that are out of their control or directing (interruptions within) families that are out of their control, especially when they’re happening in the family or before the student even comes to the education system. But what I know to be true about educators because I was one for almost 20 years, is that educators have an opportunity to create these daily doses of connection and of care and of competency as adults who have found ways to regulate their own stress (and) modeling that for young people and helping to teach them those skills, as well as lift(ing) up young people’s view of themselves, seeing themselves as contributions. And this is consistent with the research around the core protective systems  that help us prevent and interfere with trauma.

“So while this is a really overwhelming conversation for some folks or an overwhelming topic, I think that the solutions are really quite simple. And a lot of them center around our awareness, our self-regulation, and then how we show up in spaces with people, how we show up in relationship and caring and competent relationships with young people. That’s the access that educators have every single day to be those folks in young people’s lives that take a moment to pause, instead of reacting because of their own traumas, possibly, and having empathy for young people and building supports around them.”

Opening remarks:

Christine Norbut Beyer, MSW, Commissioner, New Jersey Department of Children and Families

 

Panelists:

Arturo Brito, MD, MPH, Executive Director, The Nicholson Foundation

Alisha De Lorenzo, MS, NCC, LPC, Interim Deputy Director, Garden State Equality, CEO of Living YES, LLC

Dave Ellis, Executive Director, Office of Resilience, New Jersey Department of Children and Families

Ashanti D. Jones, MSW, Community Engagement Manager, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice

 

Moderator:

Lilo H. Stainton, NJ Spotlight News Health Care Writer

 

Additional material:

NJ ACES statewide action plan

NJ Resiliency Coalition

To contact the Office of Resilience within the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, go to: DCF.OfficeofResilience@dcf.nj.gov

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