"ACEs" are adverse childhood experiences that cause such deep trauma to a child's brain that he or she will exhibit the effects decades later — well into his or her adolescence and adulthood.
ACEs may include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect or profound dysfunction in a household such as the presence of mental illness, domestic violence, incarcerated family members, or substance abuse in the home.
ACEs take many forms — as do their impacts. These kinds of experiences in childhood lead to a multitude of maladies in adults, showing up in severe obesity, alcoholism, STD transmission, and suicide rates that exceed the national averages among other dangerous health deficiencies.
ACEs also lead to crime. What may begin as acting out in school can evolve into more serious behaviors among this young population, particularly when positive influences in their lives are essentially absent.
Earlier this week, the Chattanooga Mayor's office and the Chattanooga Police Department suggested some changes to the Violence Reduction Initiative (VRI), which has been the city's signature crime fighting strategy for the last four years. With the knowledge of ACEs informing the improvements, the VRI will now include a deep, sustained focus on our city's youngest gang members — the children and teens who may be most susceptible to seeing gang activity as viable, even enviable, when committed by their older siblings or other role models.
This focus will be felt in many arenas of a child's life, starting in early childhood and working with their parents and caregivers at home. Continuing through adolescence, it will help build support networks in their schools and communities to develop systems that will provide them with healthier, safer groups of friends. The technical term for this work is "multisystemic therapy," which essentially means that we're going to surround these young people with love, support and options that they may not otherwise have.
If we work together to interrupt a lethal cycle of violent behavior by adults and subsequent behavior modeling by children, we can substantially decrease the savage and destructive acts that are ripping too many Chattanooga neighborhoods apart.
The research behind ACEs is indisputable. Every day, we see its catastrophic impacts first-hand — at first, in misbehavior in our schools, then in juvenile courtrooms and detention facilities, and then too often in hospital rooms through violence or adult health issues that impact the stability of individuals and families.
Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that "there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."
The United Way of Chattanooga, in partnership with Chattanooga 2.0 and other community organizations, has invested in ACEs training throughout the region to raise awareness and educate the public on where and how adverse childhood experiences afffect citizens locally.
The Hamilton County Juvenile Court works to safely rehabilitate hundreds of young people every year who find themselves on the wrong side the law.
But the entire Chattanooga community has a responsibility to these children — for their sake and ours.
Robert Philyaw is Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge and Jamie Bergmann is vice president of community impact for the United Way of Greater Chattanooga.