Supporting Families to Succeed

Jun 30, 2014, 9:31 AM, Posted by

Girl pointing to the side in her mother's arms

It has been more than 15 years since the Centers for Disease Control published the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study. What we learned from that study, and then subsequent research, is that sustained exposure to toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences—including abuse, neglect, neighborhood violence and chronic poverty—without the support of an engaged supportive parent or adult caretaker, can have serious extended effects on children’s subsequent development and success in life. This stress, without intervention, can lead to a lifetime of poorer health, including chronic diseases in adulthood, such as heart disease and diabetes.

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement calling on pediatricians to become leaders in an effort to decrease children’s exposure to toxic stress and to mitigate its negative effects. They acknowledged how much science had taught us about how our environment affects our “learning capacities, adaptive behaviors, lifelong physical and mental health, and adult productivity.” The statement was a significant shift in the conversation. It provided a biological framework and imperative for why we must do something about adverse childhood experiences now.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is actively working with our partners to build a Culture of Health, a culture where being healthy and staying healthy has social value, and where the healthy choice is the easy choice. But clearly—with all that we now know about early exposure to adversity—this will not happen if, as a country, we continue to allow a culture of violence—in all its forms—to persist. Every family should have the opportunity to raise their children in a nurturing environment that allows them to thrive. In too many communities and too many families, exposure to violence and trauma undermines this goal.

So, the two of us—as well as our colleagues—are currently spending our time educating ourselves to determine precisely what the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation can do to prevent exposure to violence in early childhood and promote resiliency. How can we help strengthen families and their communities? The good news—and there is good news—is that while exposure to trauma in childhood can last a lifetime, it does not need to. Well-conceived interventions can promote individual and community resilience and healing. We’re poring through research, identifying what is still not known, determining the role policy will play, and talking to thought leaders, organizations, government agencies, schools and health care providers who are doing remarkable work.

We’ve said it before; we think we're in the midst of a major paradigm shift. Dr. Sandy Bloom has likened it to the understanding of germ theory. It’s a knowledge and science shift that changes everything and has the potential to save lives. Many communities across the U.S. are using this science and knowledge to bring together multiple partners—schools, health care, law enforcement, early childcare, community agencies—to address violence and trauma and promote health and wellbeing. Within this growing movement, there are bright spots: communities that have established partnerships to create training, action and advocacy to change outcomes and trajectories for children and families dealing with violence and trauma. We are learning from these communities and are eager to share their stories, and connect with one another to increase the momentum for action.

At the end of last year, a small group of researchers, policy leaders and practitioners working to address adverse childhood experiences joined us for two days at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the National Collaborative on Adversity and Resiliency. We talked, inspired each other, occasionally disagreed and, most importantly, developed a plan to compel others to join us in an effort to expand the reach and impact of this growing social movement.

Today, with our support, the Health Federation of Philadelphia is releasing a report that reflects the outcomes of that gathering. It outlines the strategic goals we defined and the action steps we need to take. Yes, it’s a report, but we don’t want you JUST to read it. We want you to recognize it as a call to action to researchers, policy makers, business leaders, health care providers, communities, schools, parents, communicators, funders and YOU.

What can you do? Read the report from the National Collaborative on Adversity and Resiliency. And join that online community if you have not already done so! But, also, talk to us. Use the comment space to tell us about the people and organizations with which you think our colleagues and we should speak as we develop our plans. Be a part of this powerful effort to support children, parents and families to succeed.