As research shows an increasingly powerful correlation between childhood trauma and addiction, incarceration and even early death, a new legislative panel is trying to improve the state’s response to the issue.
It’s been nearly 20 years since a landmark study quantified the long-term impact of childhood traumas, but not everybody thinks the social science has gotten the spotlight it deserves.
“Bottom line, what we’re trying to do is help spread the word so more people know about this, and we can build more support for better treatments of this,” says Putney Rep. Mike Mrowicki.
Mrowicki is the chairman of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Working Group. It’s a panel of six Vermont lawmakers, created in the last legislative session, that is meeting this summer and fall.
“Research is showing that the effects of childhood trauma can be what’s driving the populations in special education, childhood health problems, adult chronic care, addiction, mental health and our prison populations,” Mrowicki says.
That trauma can come in the form of physical abuse, sexual violence and just the general stress of living in poverty. And state-level research suggests that one in eight Vermont kids has experienced three or more adverse childhood experiences.
Windham County Sen. Becca Balint, another member of the working group, says the panel is looking for answers to two key questions.
“What is it that we in the Legislature are doing right about this issue — ACEs, adverse childhood experiences — and what are we getting wrong?” Balint says.
Mrowicki says ferreting out the answers will be difficult.
“We have a lot of services currently out there. [It’s] not necessarily clear that we have to add more,” Mrowicki says. “But what we want to do is make sure what we’re doing, we’re on the right track with.”
Mrowicki says the working group wants to develop a set of analytics, so it can scrutinize existing programs more effectively and determine which ones are working and which ones are not.
Mrowicki says the panel also is looking to the medical and research community to determine what kinds of interventions yield the most effective results.
“The reason [is] trauma is not like a broken arm where you put a cast on it and six weeks later you can forget about it," Mrowicki says. "Trauma continues. Trauma is in the body.”
Balint says the panel has already identified some promising avenues. A parent-child center in Lamoille County, for example, has a dedicated staff position to work with new mothers and fathers. Balint says the model has potential.
“If this work is as promising as I think it is, then we may be looking at a public-private partnership in the future,” Balint says.
Since the Legislature holds the purse strings to human services funding, Balint says it may be able to play a more useful role in directing limited resources.
“How are we spending the money? That's one of our basic charges,” Balint says.
But she and Mrowicki say they hope the working group can have a more overarching influence on state policy.
“We have a mouthpiece in which to highlight the issues that folks across the state are dealing with on the ground,” Balint says.
The group will deliver a report to lawmakers before the Legislature reconvenes in January.