By Cortney Downs, Kentucky Youth Advocates intern

What happens when children are exposed to potentially traumatizing events in their homes, schools, and communities? A growing body of research shows that exposure during the formative years can impact the trajectory of a child’s physical and emotional health well into adulthood. In a continued effort to raise awareness and encourage action, Child Trends recently released a report on the findings of the latest National Survey of Children’s Health specific to adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

Many people would be shocked to find out that experiencing certain events during childhood can dramatically increase one’s risk for everything from heart disease, diabetes, and cancer to depression, drug use, and suicide. Yet, that’s exactly what the research on ACEs has found, beginning with the original ACEs Study published in 1998.

What does the data show?

The 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health looked at many of the same adverse childhood experiences defined in the original research, as well as some different measures of adversity. Approximately 50,000 parents across the nation answered whether their children have experienced the following: 

  • Economic hardship, such as difficulty providing food or housing;
  • The divorce or separation, death, or incarceration of a parent or guardian;
  • Witnessing violence in the home;
  • Witnessing or being a victim of neighborhood violence;
  • Living with anyone who was mentally ill or suicidal, or depressed for more than a couple of weeks; and
  • Living with anyone who had a problem with alcohol or drugs.

Based on responses from Kentucky parents, 27 percent of Kentucky children have experienced one ACE, 13 percent have experienced two, and 14 percent have experienced three to eight ACEs. The most common adverse childhood experiences among Kentucky children are the divorce or separation of parents (33 percent), economic hardship (27 percent), and the incarceration of a parent or guardian (15 percent).

How do ACEs impact children?

As mentioned above, the consequences of experiencing multiple ACEs can persist throughout adulthood, but they begin during childhood. For example, more than three-quarters of U.S. children ages 3-5 expelled from preschool have ACEs. The Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative released an issue brief looking at the prevalence of several child and family health measures among children with one or more ACEs. In Kentucky, 51 percent of children who have experienced an ACE are engaged in school and completing all required homework, and 16 percent have ongoing emotional, developmental, and/or behavioral health conditions.

What can counter ACEs? 

Exposure to ACEs does not mean that children and families can’t thrive. Children can be protected from the negative consequences of ACEs by building resilience, which enables them to stay calm and in control when faced with challenges. Promoting healthy and positive habits, routines, and communication within families is also important. Children ages 6-17 who have experienced two or more ACEs and have effectively developed resiliency skills are three times more likely to be engaged in school than their counterparts who lack such skills. Unfortunately, Kentucky has a significantly lower rate than the nation of resiliency among 6-17-year-olds who have experienced ACEs (32 percent compared to 43 percent).

What is being done in Kentucky?

Interest in addressing ACEs continues to grow among community-based practitioners, child-serving systems, and state policy makers. Implemented in five Jefferson County public schools to date, Bounce: Building Resilient Children and Families trains school staff and out-of-school providers on ACEs and resiliency, encouraging individuals to ask, “what happened to this child?” instead of “what’s wrong with this child?”

Additionally, state leaders are in Frankfort discussing legislation and a two-year state budget that will impact kids and families across Kentucky. A few examples as it relates to the impact of ACEs include:

  • House Bill 1 which seeks to make changes to the foster care and adoption system, including strengthening front end support to help keep families together and, when that’s not possible, addressing timelines for adoption cases so children do not linger in care without a permanent family. The bill also includes a number of changes to improve the performance of programs within the child welfare system and to help ensure decisions made prioritize the best interest of the child.
  • House Bill 396 which seeks to reform many aspects of the criminal justice system to address Kentucky’s ranking as second in the nation in the rate of children who’ve had a parent incarcerated and second in the rate of female incarceration. The bill focuses on alternatives to incarceration to address the underlying issues like substance abuse and mental health issues. HB 396 seeks to hold offenders accountable in a way that also keeps families together and reduces the impact of parental incarceration.
  • House Bill 423 which promotes recovery for mothers and babies by creating funding streams for substance abuse treatment for mothers through a program called Family In Recovery Empowerment (FIRE).
  • House Bill 604 which seeks to help keep kids safe by ensuring schools have access to mental health professionals, as well as by creating a toolkit to help schools develop a trauma-informed approach to recognize when students may be in need of help.
  • Senate Bill 133 which seeks to improve conditions for pregnant inmates, including prohibiting shackling of women during labor and delivery and allowing pregnant women to be released to substance abuse treatment, which would help reduce the impact of parental incarceration on their babies.
  • The proposed state executive branch budget (House Bill 200) currently includes funding allocations to support children and families impacted by abuse or neglect, including relative caregiver supports and substance abuse treatment for pregnant women, as well as funding for Family Resources and Youth Services Centers.

Check out our bill tracker to follow along as the state budget and bills that are good for kids progress through the Kentucky legislature. Find out how you can take action on behalf of Kentucky kids and families here.

To learn more about ACEs and treating childhood trauma, check out this recent 60 Minutes segment.