In part one of the series Breaking the Cycle, reporter Katie Eastman explains the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and why it’s important to a local school.
ALBANY, N.Y. — Inside brick walls along Western Avenue in Albany, there’s a movement — one that asks a different question.
Instead of what did you do, this movement asks: What happened to you?
“Have you ever lost a parent to death or incarceration? Have you ever been hit slapped insulted? Have you ever been sexually abused?” said David Wallace, listing off questions commonly asked.
There are 10 questions in all, and the answer is yes for so many of the 12- to 18-year-old boys who live and go to class at the La Salle School in Albany.
“There’s some strong evidence that suggests if we do nothing, they will experience a life course of illness and poor performance academically, emotionally, behaviourally, interpersonally,” said Wallace, the director of Clinical Services at the LaSalle School.
Their results showed a strong link between childhood trauma and chronic disease, mental illness, addiction, obesity — the list goes on. These results came out more than 15 years ago.
“I figured the minute that everybody else heard about this, it would be routine screenings, multidisciplinary treatments teams and it would be a race to the most effective clinical treatment protocols. Yeah…that did not happen,” said Nadine Burke Harris during a Ted Med Talk.
Burke Harris is a California pediatrician who says doctors should give screenings with the ACEs questions. She says children are often misdiagnosed with things like ADHD, when really their brain is damaged from toxic stress after enduring traumatic events like life with an alcoholic father or the death of a mother.
“So there are real neurologic reasons why folks exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high risk behavior and that’s important to know,” she said. “But it turns out that even if you don’t engage in any high-risk behavior, you’re still more likely to develop heart disease or cancer.”
Just three points on the ACEs test leads to significantly higher rates of mental and medical disorders. Almost all of the LaSalle students have a five or higher. Almost all of them engaged in high-risk behavior.
“A big part of that is letting our staff understand not so much what did the kid did to get here, because that’s not how we want our staff to view a kid,” said Troy Kennedy. “We want them to ask what happened? Which is the bottom line of the ACEs study. What happened along the way?”
Kennedy trains people at LaSalle how to implement trauma-informed practices based on ACES.
When he speaks, people listen, likely because his knowledge goes beyond the books. About 30 years ago, he was a student at LaSalle.
“You know I would go in people’s cars digging for change, and that just led me down a path of juvenile delinquency,” he said.
That’s what Kennedy did, but it wasn’t until recently he asked himself the question: What happened? His ACE score was a five out of 10.
“The points were going up,” Kennedy said counting on his fingers. “Had I ever seen someone domestically abused? Of course I did. Were there times we missed a meal? Well sure. Looking back at it, it didn’t seem bad at the time, because we felt so loved, we thought, our mom was doing the best she could.”
Kennedy’s personal story gives him ammunition to help the kids he sees every day — before their brains are fully developed, so they don’t have to wait until they’re 42 to find out what happened to them is why they did what they did.
“Get ‘em when they’re 12,” he said.
LaSalle School is a leader in programs and services for youth and families in crisis offering a variety of programs designed to meet their needs including specialized residential placement, day service education, and alternative to detention services. The Counseling Center at LaSalle is an OMH and OASAS licensed outpatient behavioral health clinic located at LaSalle School, and currently implementing ACE treatment practices with youth and families. LaSalle is accredited by the Council on Accreditation (COA), and affiliated with the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA), and the national Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.