By Katie Rayner
The Building Resilient Communities, Building Resilient Children convening was held Monday, March 2 at the Hogan Campus Center at The College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Social service and child welfare agencies, two District Attorneys, Massachusetts legislators and staff came together to learn how gateway cities can move Massachusetts to becoming a trauma informed and responsive state.
To start the convening, various organizations had resource tables set up informing the attendees of their services, and how they all can work together to build capacities within each other. While the conference was based in Worcester, attendees came from all across the Commonwealth.
Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early addressed the crowd speaking about children who witness trauma every day and how that trauma spills out into their lives. The effects from trauma show up in the child’s academics, and social interactions, “They have a compounding effect that keeps on getting worse, and worse,” Early said.
State Senator Harriette Chandler, the Massachusetts Senate President Emerita, who currently serves as the Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Bills in Third Reading and the Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Healthcare Financing, addressed the crowd saying “You are in the trenches, in the weeds and in the field, this is your issue,” emphasizing that all the parties that came to the table in that room had a role in helping Massachusetts become a more trauma informed and responsive state. The participants are in the thick of it all day in and day out, and to have them all come together in one room allowed the conversation to get started.
Senator Chandler explained that in 2018 Audrey Smolkin, Director of Child and Family Policy at UMASS Medical School brought all the social services together in Worcester to identify problems impacting children in the city. What they found was that the issue was childhood trauma. “Trauma is at the root of the problems, you deal with every day,” Chandler said, “When we commit as a community, and as a state we can truly make a difference in public health.” Chandler encouraged the crowd to take the first step in working toward the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) transformation that is happening across the country, spearheaded by California's Surgeon General, Nadine Burke Harris.
Chandler then handed over the microphone to Audrey Smolkin for in-depth look at ACEs and the effects trauma has on neural development. When there are many ACEs happening in a child’s life this causes their body and their brain to produce a constant flow of stress hormones, which leads to toxic stress. This can lead to social, emotional, and cognitive impairment, Smolkin explained. “ACEs write some of the past, they do not write the future,” Smolkin said, “with early detection and intervention, we can transform health outcomes and lives.”
Maria Mossaides of Massachusetts Child Advocate said that this conference was a “launching pad for the Commonwealth to be a trauma informed and responsive state,” creating an environment where every child has the ability to thrive. Mossaides addressed the limited communications and limited resources that are available for those who work with and experience trauma daily and how this can lead to more harmful consequences in a child’s life. “We need to change the way we operate. We need to do a better job of addressing behavioral issues so we can understand the underlying issues,” Mossaides said. She then went into detail on how every child should be screened for ACEs. Mossaides’ final point hit home for the crowd in the Hogan Center on Monday. The idea that it only takes one caring adult to make a difference in a child’s life, and any of the people in that room could be that caring adult in a child’s life.
Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz’s remarks highlighted the shift in the way district attorney’s offices are prosecuting cases, focusing more on prevention, and breaking down barriers to prevent prosecution. “The kids I prosecute today, I prosecuted their grandparents in the ‘80s so how do we stop this cycle?” Cruz said. He explained the different programs operating in Plymouth County, including the Trauma Learning Policy Initiative, a partnership with Mass Advocates and Harvard Law School, Handle with Care, and the Drug Endangered Children’s Initiative, a collaboration of the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office, Plymouth County Outreach, and the United Way of Greater Plymouth County and Community Connections of Brockton. DA Cruz explained how all of these initiatives are critical to the mitigation of trauma and ACEs going on in these children’s lives. He then explained how the opioid crisis has not only affected Plymouth County but the state as a whole. “The opioid crisis is like throwing a pebble in a pond, where the ripple goes far and wide,” Cruz said.
The convening then shifted gears into a panel discussion of solutions for creating a trauma informed and responsive state. The panel included Nerissa Harper-Ketter and Diogentio Jorge of Worcester Addresses Childhood Trauma, Nanci Coelho, of Wayside Youth and Family Support Network, and Edward Jacoubs, Director of Grants and Sponsored Projects at the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office.
Worcester Addresses Childhood Trauma (ACTs) representatives talked about the unaddressed trauma in childhood and the impacts it has on that child’s quality of life. They also explained that if we as a society want to help the children who experience trauma, we also need to help their caregivers and making that connection is the key to building resilience in both the child and the caregiver. “Understanding that we need to help the entire unit is crucial,” Jorge said. Worcester ACTs tries its best to change the mindset of all involved, making it a more positive mindset, always reminding the family they are the expert on their own action plan.
Nancy Coelho from Wayside Youth and Family explained the impacts of multi-generational trauma that can occur within a family. She explained her own personal story of multi-generational trauma and how it occurs much more frequently in our communities than we would think.
To end the panel, Ed Jacoubs explained more in-depth about the programs and initiatives going on in Plymouth County and the surrounding areas. He explained that all these initiatives are focusing on helping the child directly and showing that there are caring adults in their lives. Specifically Handle with Care, where if a police officer reports to a call where a child is present that responding police officer will report to the child’s school and teacher to “handle that child with care.” The teacher has then received training on how to make his/her classroom more trauma sensitive and to help mitigate the effects of the trauma in this child’s life.
Senator Chandler ended the day with a call to action about how the attendees can report out to their legislature about turning Massachusetts into a more trauma informed and responsive state.