Serious childhood trauma can last a lifetime, but you can help

Ashley Snee Giovannettone
Ashley Snee Giovannettone Special to The Bee

As you contemplate your 2017 resolutions, consider investing time in the most vulnerable kids in our community. It might be the highest yielding investment of your life.

Stories of neglect and abuse are tragically common. When the abuse ends, ramifications can, and often do, continue well into adulthood.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study in the 1990s called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs). Researchers found that in high doses, childhood trauma can significantly impact the child’s long-term health and wellness.

These are not your everyday disappointments, but experiences so traumatic that they can change the child’s physiology, such as severe neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse or a highly dysfunctional home.

The study looked at 17,000 cases and gave each participant one point for each traumatic childhood experience. The higher the score, they found, the worse the health outcome.

People with scores of 4 or more were twice as likely to develop heart disease, 2 1/2 times as likely to develop hepatitis and 12 times as likely to attempt suicide. People whose scores were 7 or more had a 20-year difference in life expectancy.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, which serves one of San Francisco’s poorest communities, and is an adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown’s “Let’s Get Healthy California Task Force.”

To explain the effects of repeated trauma on children, Harris uses the example of encountering a bear in the forest. The nervous system stimulates the adrenal gland, triggering the release of stress hormones and fight or flight response. When that “bear” comes home every night, kids experience continual fight or flight responses and these high doses of stress hormones result in a toxic response that can damage the developing body.

The 20-year-old study is getting renewed attention of lawmakers now. Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, has introduced AB 11 intended to implement science-driven remedies to help the youngest victims.

Science reveals there is something the rest of us can do: be a caring, dependable adult in a vulnerable child’s life.

“As humans, we are able to biologically buffer each others stress responses,” Harris said. “With safe, stable and nurturing environments – biologically what’s happening is that those adults are becoming a buffer for the stress response.

“We are understanding more than before, the scope and scale of the impact of these relationships. You can protect against a whole series of long term adverse outcomes,” Harris said.

Becoming a caring foster parent, a court-appointed special advocate or CASA, a mentor, a teacher or a coach are the kinds of roles that can make dramatic differences for these kids.

“ACEs do not have to be a sentence for our kids. If we can get enough people to do their little part, eventually you put all these things together as an ecosystem of support for kids,” Harris said.

So get that new gym membership, eat healthier and find a way to invest your heart and time in one child in need. You will quite literally change, and maybe save a life.

Ashley Snee Giovannettone, a former spokeswoman for President George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, serves as a CASA and is on the board of California Alliance of Caregivers, which promotes the well-being of children in foster care.