Great Falls, Montana – It’s safe to assume that every Montanan is against child abuse. But tragically, it happens all the time, the incidents of child abuse are actually increasing, and the impacts of abuse on the most vulnerable of Montana’s citizens, our children, often last a lifetime.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Twenty years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the link between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), or childhood trauma, and the physical and behavioral health problems of children as they reach adolescence and adulthood. The study concluded that children subjected to high levels of trauma (high ACE scores) are much more likely to face a future of behavioral problems like alcoholism, smoking, and early pregnancy, as well as physical problems like obesity, heart and liver disease.
People with high ACE scores are more likely to enter the correctional system, commit suicide, or face an early death. It’s not a stretch to conclude that childhood trauma is largely responsible for the high populations in Montana’s correctional and mental health systems, our tragically high suicide rates, and our increasing health care costs. An ACE score of 4 or higher seems to be the tipping point, and Montana is in the top three in terms of states with the highest percentage of children with ACE scores of 4 or higher.
But here’s the good news: A high ACE score predicts but does not condemn a child to a dark future. There are things we can do to improve children’s chances of success. One thing that studies in the state of Washington and elsewhere have indicated is that by educating caretakers on the impacts of trauma on children’s brain development and behaviors, people react with more compassion and understanding to the children in their care. Compassion and understanding are exactly what these children need. It helps them build resilience, and it brightens the outlook for their future.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services touches the lives of children throughout the state. We oversee the state’s foster care and children’s mental health systems. We investigate reports of child abuse and neglect. We manage the Healthy Montana Kids Program. We license and inspect child care and Head Start facilities.
This year, DPHHS will become the first fully trauma-informed agency in the state, and perhaps in the country. All 3,000-plus DPHHS employees are now required to undergo at least some level of ACE training. We believe this will have ripple effects throughout the state in the three places children spend their time: at home; in child care facilities; and in schools.
DPHHS is leading by example by partnering with ChildWise Institute and others to increase public awareness of the impacts of childhood trauma and the importance of helping children develop the resilience they need to achieve success in life. As all of us learn about the lasting effects of trauma, we will better appreciate the importance of prevention and the need for compassion.
By far, the best way to honor Child Abuse Prevention Month is to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place. We must all work toward that end.
Learning about trauma is an important first step for all of us entrusted with the sacred responsibility for care of Montana’s children, and it will ultimately lead to prevention of child abuse in our future generations.