The statistics from the original Adverse Childhood Experiences Study are overwhelming, even sobering.
But most important for leaders in Memphis committed to trying to break a destructive cycle, those same statistics provided the evidence for Greater Memphis to serve as the future site of two pilot “parenting places” that will offer pre-emptive and professional support to parents and caregivers.
“We do 5,000 deliveries a year,” said Anita Vaughan, CEO of Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women, which with Knowledge Quest will serve as host to one of the first two pilot locations. “Fifty-two percent are underserved and the rest are everyday walk-of-life. I don’t care who you are; parenting can be scary. From the moment it happens all the way through the teen years.”
Barbara Holden Nixon, an early childhood consultant, is chair of the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Center Task Force for Shelby County.
“We know we have to focus on prevention,” Nixon said. “And to reach some of the problems, we have to try and get to things earlier.”
The three-year pilot program here would have two “parenting places” opening next January and staffed by licensed social workers and counselors.
Everyone from Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. to Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has endorsed the project; those three will serve as ex officio members of the ACE task force. Porter-Leath will administrate the parenting places.
The Shelby County pilot is based on the work of Robin Karr-Morse, author of “Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease” and “Ghosts from the Nursery.” Karr-Morse is founder of the Parenting Institute in Portland, Ore., and will serve as consultant to the project here, as will Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, co-investigator of the original ACE study, which involved more than 17,000 adults.
In his paper “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead,” Felitti says: “The study makes it clear that time does not heal some of the adverse experiences we found so common in the childhoods of a large population of middle-aged, middle-class Americans. One does not ‘just get over’ some things, not even 50 years later.”
The original ACE study looked at adverse childhood experiences in two broad categories – childhood abuse and household dysfunction – and eight sub-categories that included physical, sexual and emotional abuse; and growing up in a household where someone was in prison; where the mother was treated violently; where there was at least one alcoholic or drug user; where someone was chronically depressed, mentally ill or suicidal; and where at least one biological parent was lost to the patient during childhood – regardless of cause.
Anyone exposed to at least four of these factors would have an ACE score of 4. And that’s where the statistics jump off the page. For instance, a person with an ACE score of 4 is 260 percent more likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – a disease often associated with smoking, which is more likely to begin at an earlier age among those with higher ACE scores.
Additionally, a male child with an ACE score of 6 is 4,600 percent more likely to later become an intravenous drug user than a child with an ACE score of 0. Also, an ACE of 4 or more indicated a 460 percent increase in the chances of suffering from depression as an adult than someone who had an ACE score of 0. And these are just a few of the examples.
“Every community has a high level of toxic stress,” Nixon said. “What we’re hoping to answer is what do we need to do about it?”
The pilot project is privately funded, and services will available to all families, regardless of income. The hope is that over time the project proves its value and that making use of the services could be at least partially reimbursable through health insurance.
“We’re gonna have to show some results,” Vaughan said. “And then I think they’ll jump on board with us.”
Nixon said that in a lot of cases, a problem might be able to be addressed over the telephone; more complex issues would require a face-to-face meeting with a counselor or social worker. Those who come in, Nixon says, will find a “warm, friendly feeling. Somebody will be there to greet you. This is not people walking around in lab coats with clipboards.”
Vaughan said they are “trying to work upstream” and catch problems before they require more formal services or a family is in genuine crisis – in other words, intervention before bad patterns take hold and those patterns then “become a way of life.”
“Some people might need it one time,” Vaughan said of the services the parenting places will provide. “And some people will need it a lot more than that.”
Said Nixon: “We’re trying to make it OK to ask for help. You parent the way you were parented.”
Visit porterleath.org to learn more about the ACE Center Task Force for Shelby County.