We spoke with Martha Davis, the Executive Director of the Institute in the days leading up to the ACEs Summit.
Q: What are your goals for the event?
Martha: We want to advance the national dialogue on ACEs, trauma, toxic stress, and resilience. We want to create a shared vision and language and plan of action for what comes next.
Q: Who will be at the event?
Martha: We have leaders who are doing remarkable and groundbreaking work in research, policy and practice related to the treatment and/or prevention of ACEs. We also have a group of funders who will be coming. We began organizing this summit with folks from pediatric care, but we’ve expanded it to include child welfare, juvenile justice, and educators.
Q: Why hold this event now?
Martha: This year marks the 15th anniversary since the original ACE study and I think we're in the midst of a non-violent revolution. One of our speakers and an Institute for Safe Families founding board member— Dr. Sandy Bloom — likens it to the understanding of germ theory. It’s a knowledge and science revolution that has the potential to save lives.
This past year, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a statement about the impact of toxic stress on children’s development. It’s providing a biological framework and imperative for why we must do something now. There’s been tremendous advancement in neuroscience and even epigenetics that help explain how and why adverse childhood experiences cause later health problems. It’s a real shift in the conversation. For example, it says to pediatricians that if one of the predictors of long-term health and well-being is the level of toxic stress children are exposed to, then they have role to play in treatment and prevention. In the past, you might have asked, “What is wrong with you?” If you know about the ACE study, if you have a trauma-informed perspective, you might ask instead, “What happened to you?” It’s simple, but it’s a profound question that changes everything about how we practice and conduct policy and research.
Q: What are the greatest hurdles faced by those who are working to intervene or address the impact of ACEs face today?
Martha: One of the hurdles to overcome is the status quo, and those who don’t want to do things differently. Or there are people who don’t want to acknowledge and shift priorities based on how many children and their families in our communities live in poverty.
What we learned from the ACE study is that early exposure to adversity will predictively create problems; if something happened to you as a child, then it’s predictively going to cause problematic, high risk behaviors and later health issues and ACEs may even determine how long you live. So another hurdle that we’re working to overcome is the challenge of preventing childhood exposure to adversity. How does one do that?
What’s the role of healthcare providers? How can we deliver an integrated, primary behavioral healthcare system? How can we connect people in need to each other and to care? What policies around early education or law enforcement should exist if we know this information? How do we build the capacity and readiness in communities to respond to the overwhelming levels of adversity and where do we find those resources? How can we institutionalize resilience? And how do we change big systems that have done things a certain way for so long? And how do we align all of our practice and all of our policies across multiple systems to function in ways that acknowledge and understand the full impact of early trauma? These are big questions. They require nothing less than a paradigm shift.
I am confident and excited that, if you put this brilliant collection of leaders and thinkers together, we will come up with a more unified voice about how to prevent the predictable and define what’s next.