Community leaders detail how adverse childhood experiences negatively impact African American girls

UALR sign at the entrance on S. University Dr near University Plaza on January 28, 2016.

A panel of female community leaders and experts detailed how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have a negative impact on African American girls that can lead to physical and mental health issues in adulthood.

The UA Little Rock Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity and the Arkansas Minority Health Commission sponsored the Aug. 8 community conversation that was attended by about 200 people. The event was moderated by Tara Shephard, an author, education and mental health advocate, who hosts an annual girls empowerment conference at UA Little Rock. The community conversation is based on the results of a report compiled from a survey of conference participants.

“You all are here because of the girls. There are normally close to 300 girls who attend the At-Promise Girls Empowerment Conference and 60 volunteers who help me pull that event off. If we don’t ask the uncomfortable questions today, we won’t ever answer them”

The five panelists included Tjuana Byrd, a juvenile judge candidate; Sharhonda Love, director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission; Dr. Johanna Thomas, assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; Dr. Sara Jones, assistant professor in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Nursing; and Keesa Smith, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

Adverse Childhood Experiences are defined as “all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences” that children experience prior to age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control. ACEs can include emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; domestic violence; substance abuse or mental illness in the household; parental separation or divorce; an incarcerated family member, etc.

These experiences have been linked to negative consequences in adulthood, including poor health conditions, shortened life expectancy, and an overall poor quality of health. People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune diseases. People with an ACE score of four are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholic. Having an ACE score of four increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent and attempted suicide by 1200 percent.  People with an ACE score of six or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.

“You have to pay attention to the whole body, because just paying attention to physical health or mental health is not enough,” Jones said. “If we can start this conversation about the impact of ACEs and get more people to understand, we can make a bigger impact.”

Arkansas has the highest prevalence of children who have experienced an Adverse Childhood Experience in the U.S. About 45 percent of children in the U.S. have experience at least one ACE, while 56 percent of children in Arkansas have experienced at least one ACE. In Arkansas, one in seven children experience three or more ACEs compared to the national average of one and 10. This can lead to a negative impact on long-term public health issues in the state.

“When AIDs became a big epidemic, we did something about it,” Shephard said. “We need to look at ACEs as a public health crisis, and this is how we get the conversation started.”

Smith said the state of Arkansas is realizing how detrimental ACEs can be to public health and is investigating how to address the issue. In January, the Arkansas Department of Human Services Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education received a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Children and Families that will be used to train staff, parents, and others working with children from birth to 5 years old who have experienced trauma.

“During the last legislative session, there came a heightened interest in talking about ACEs,” Smith said. “There will now be an interim limited study that explores the impact of ACEs in the state. Adults often do not acknowledge that we had trauma when we were children, and we have a perpetuation. We have a generation that is dealing with the ramifications of their grandparents and parents who have not acknowledged childhood trauma.”

African American girls are often more negatively impacted by ACEs. They are the fastest-growing population in the juvenile justice system. In many cases, their crimes are the result of ACEs that have not been dealt with. Experts argue that submitting a child to the juvenile justice often causes more harm than good.

“The reality is when it comes to criminal or delinquent behavior, that first point of contact is with the police, and there is a great deal of discretion, and that discretion does not favor African Americans,” Byrd said. “It is difficult as an African American woman to know who is showing up in those halls in juvenile court. The sad reality is that it all connects to each other. These same numbers of girls who are ending up in the juvenile justice starts from a fight in school, because we have criminalized so much juvenile behavior. I hope we will see change.”

Shepard plans to continue the conversation through her annual conference and with all vested stakeholders in throughout the state and in the region.

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