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To improve lifelong health, Memphis tries rooting out childhood trauma

April 20, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Childhood trauma such as abuse, neighborhood violence or the death of a parent has been found to lead to dire health and social problems later in life. How can communities intervene to spare future generations the same pain and illness? Special correspondent Sarah Varney reports in collaboration with Kaiser Health News on how the city of Memphis, Tennessee, is tackling the problem.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There is more and more evidence that traumatic events experienced in childhood, like abuse, neighborhood violence or the death of a parent, can contribute to health consequences in adulthood, from heart disease to diabetes.

Now communities throughout the U.S. are beginning to intervene to try to prevent this.

Special correspondent Sarah Varney begins our report from Los Angeles, which was done in partnership with Kaiser Health News, and with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.

SARAH VARNEY: Kimberly Cervantes has spent much of her young life learning to outwit the perils of Compton. Although she had adults she could trust in high school, like teacher Armando Castro, they couldn’t shield her from an assault on a public bus.

KIMBERLY CERVANTES, Compton Resident: He tried to grab me.

SARAH VARNEY: And frequent gunshots outside the school. In middle school, she witnessed the deaths of two students. That steady exposure to violence has led Cervantes to some dark places, at times a crippling anxiety that forced her to miss school and thoughts of suicide.

KIMBERLY CERVANTES: There’s so many people out there acting out and just drug abusers on almost every corner. It’s hard to maintain the whole happy-go-lifestyle, you know? It’s not easy.

SARAH VARNEY: In an unprecedented move, Cervantes and four other students are suing the Compton Unified School District, arguing that the trauma they have faced makes it difficult to learn. They’re asking the federal court to force the district to provide additional support, in the same way schools accommodate students with autism, dyslexia and other learning differences under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

At home in Compton, Arthur, whose identity has to be protected because of the pending lawsuit, has struggled with homework. He was rescued by his father from a drug-addicted mother, but because of his outbursts and defiance, he’s bounced from school to school.

Students who’ve suffered multiple traumatic incidents are six times more likely to have behavioral problems, five times more likely to skip school, and two-and-a-half times more likely to repeat a grade.

Public Counsel staff attorney Kathryn Eidmann, who is on the legal team representing the students, says research shows that sustained stress alters brain development and, if ignored, can derail academic achievement.

KATHRYN EIDMANN, Staff Attorney, Public Counsel: The children who have been injured, through no fault of their own, by these types of adverse experiences need intervention and support from the schools in order to be able to learn.

SARAH VARNEY: The lawsuit is currently pending in federal court.

With each passing year, new research validates a pioneering large-scale study from the 1990s that found one in four had grown up in households with substance abuse, one in four had been physically abused, and one in five sexually abused. These so-called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, were found to predict a raft of health and social problems, from adolescent pregnancy to depression and heart disease in adulthood.

As the long term implications of childhood trauma become increasingly clear, cities across the country are trying to understand the kind of violence happening in their own communities along city streets and behind closed doors. Local leaders say the next step is to stop those traumatic events from happening in the first place.

In Memphis, Tennessee, a city rich in music and culture, but marked by violence and racial strife, local leaders who commissioned a survey to measure childhood trauma were stunned at the results; 37 percent of adults in the county during their youth had witnessed someone being shot or stabbed; 22 percent witnessed violence between adults.

But what could local leaders do to spare the next generation similar anguish?

BARBARA HOLDEN NIXON, ACE Center Task Force of Shelby County: We know that children are being expelled from pre-K more frequently than they are from K-12.

SARAH VARNEY: Barbara Holden Nixon, a longtime social worker, founded the ACE Center Task Force of Shelby County. She convened a who’s-who of state and local government and community leaders to focus primarily on parenting to try to prevent trauma from the earliest ages.

BARBARA HOLDEN NIXON: There’s not a transition place until a person gets to juvenile justice, I mean, all kinds of things before they really see another professional, because we don’t have this preventative network.

SARAH VARNEY: Nixon turned to Robin Karr-Morse, a well-known expert on childhood trauma. She says parents who themselves suffered wrenching childhoods need help learning better ways to raise their children.

ROBIN KARR-MORSE, The Parenting Institute: We’re putting no blame on the parents. The whole idea is just the opposite. It’s to recognize that those things have happened to them. It’s not, what’s wrong with you? It’s, what happened to you? And then giving them tools to help offset whatever that is.

SARAH VARNEY: Memphis has started by opening Universal Parenting Places, free drop-in centers that offer art therapy that help children and parents express difficult emotions.

WOMAN: I rise above.

SARAH VARNEY: Music classes to help stressed families find joy, and individual counseling to help parents understand their own trauma and break the cycle with their children.

Kimberly Lawston sought help after a bitter divorce to explain the breakup to help children. But the counseling sessions led Lawston to reflect on her own childhood.

KIMBERLY LAWSTON, Memphis Parent: My mother was a hollerer, you know, and I didn’t want to be that way, where you were afraid to come to me.

SARAH VARNEY: Now she’s learning new approaches to parenting, although she’s faced resistance from her family.

KIMBERLY LAWSTON: At first, it was a struggle. It was like a fight, like pulling teeth, like, no, that’s not how we do it. We do it this way. There’s nothing wrong with us, the way we raised you. You have to do what I say.

And I was like, well, it’s not your world anymore. It’s mine. And I have to do what’s best for me, in order for my — me and my children to heal.

SARAH VARNEY: One of the Parenting Places has opened at Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women, where doctors can refer parents directly upstairs for classes and counseling. The next will open in Perea Preschool.

Principal Alicia Norman says interventions are urgently needed, as the number of preschoolers being expelled grows.

ALICIA NORMAN, Principal, Perea Preschool: They’re angry. They are out of control, 3- and 4-year-olds. And it breaks my heart to see that a child has been broken so early in life.

SARAH VARNEY: In school surveys, Norman says parents report spanking their children, in some cases with belts and electrical cords, up to five days a week.

ALICIA NORMAN: For a lot of our families, their first option, sometimes their only option is to spank their children, where research shows now the adverse effects of spanking, especially spanking gone wrong.

They want their children to be the best that they can be, but these are the only tools that they have.

WOMAN: In terms of law enforcement, we’re seeing more and more of the effects that it has on children, just violence in the home.

SARAH VARNEY: Local law enforcement officers say children living in turbulent homes, whether they’re wealthy or poor, are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.

STEPHEN BUSH, Shelby County Chief Public Defender: What if we could right-size our criminal justice system?

SARAH VARNEY: But Stephen Bush, Shelby County chief public defender and a fervent member of the task force, says the ACE research is changing how cases are prosecuted here.

STEPHEN BUSH: The use of adverse childhood experiences and the language around that has given us a new common language when we’re advocating on behalf of kids in front of the courts that helps explain some of the behaviors that might not seem understandable if you’re just looking at it without understanding the history of this child’s life.

SARAH VARNEY: Support for this new awareness reaches to the top of county government.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, also a task force member, calls the ACE research a basic philosophy of county government.

MAYOR MARK LUTTRELL, Shelby County, Tennessee: We have tried to make it the common thread that runs through our public safety agenda, through our public health agenda, through our community services agenda, through our education agenda.

Every portfolio that we have within county government has a component in there for, how do you address the younger generations at that formative stage?

SARAH VARNEY: No one expects change to come quickly to Memphis. It could take decades to figure out if this approach reduces violence in the community. But leaders here say doing away with the stigma of getting parenting help and even making it fun and joyful is a good start.

For the “PBS NewsHour” and Kaiser Health News, I’m Sarah Varney in Memphis.

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