Adults have one thing in common: we were once children. The quality of one’s childhood may have been tumultuous, nurturing, or a little of both. Certain events from childhood can stay with a person, sometimes long into adulthood. There is a scientifically documented relationship between events occurring in one’s childhood and an adult’s health and well-being. There was an intriguing study done in the 1990s called the ACE Study, which looked at Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs.
Starting in 1995-1997, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, California began to follow more than seventeen thousand HMO members. Most of the participants were white, well-educated, and aged forty or older. Those adult patients agreed to provide detailed information about their childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction—including events such as their parents’ divorce.
Since then, the study has not accepted new members, but has continued to track the original seventeen thousand participants. The researchers divided ACEs into three broad categories: 1) childhood abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional); 2) childhood neglect (emotional and physical); and, 3) exposure to other traumatic stressors (mother was treated violently; a household member had a substance abuse problem or mental illness; parental separation or divorce; or, an incarcerated household member).
Almost two-thirds of the study participants reported at least one ACE—and more than twenty percent reported three or more ACEs. According to the CDC, “as the number of adverse childhood experiences increases, the risk for the following health problems increases in a strong and graded fashion.”
- Alcoholism/alcohol abuse
- Fetal death
- Health-related quality of life
- Illicit drug use
- Ischemic heart disease
- Liver disease
- Risk for intimate partner violence
- Multiple sexual partners
- Suicide Attempts
- Unintended pregnancies
- Early initiation of smoking
- Early initiation of sexual activity
- Adolescent pregnancy
The findings from the ACE Study demonstrate correlation, not causation. We cannot say that growing up in a dysfunctional family causes heart disease; but, childhood stressors that are not ameliorated by protective factors probably lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Some common ones are smoking, drug use, overeating, and alcohol abuse.
In turn, these bad habits greatly increase the likelihood a person will suffer from the health problems listed above. So compelling are the findings that a number of other countries are currently seeking to replicate the ACE Study. Many researchers have studied the data from the ACE Study to conduct their own work on health outcomes ranging from frequent headaches and work absenteeism to child sexual abuse victimization and intimate partner violence.
With nearly two-thirds of study participants reporting at least one ACE, the odds are great that the adults appearing in court for matters involving substance abuse, family violence, and child maltreatment are also haunted by ACEs. Their childhoods may have been marked by instability or violence—or maybe “just” a divorce—and they are still dealing with the effects of trauma.
Judges need to be mindful of the devastating effects of adverse childhood experiences when presiding over any case involving children, whether it be a seemingly innocuous, routine divorce or a child in need of services (CHINS) case with two addicted parents. While courts cannot cure families, judges do have the power to order counseling and other therapeutic interventions for children and their parents, so that the consequences of these events are not permanent.