Danette McLaurin Glass, a multi-award-winning youth development advocate for public and community-based agencies, says things will get worse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“After the crisis, we are going to see an escalation of reported trauma exposure because right now young people in homes are not able to communicate the maltreatment they are experiencing,” she says. “Lack of accountability has left some young people vulnerable to being abused while school districts are in this virtual or digital learning setting."
The coronavirus crisis affects the mental health of parents, who are also traumatized, Glass emphasizes: “And if they do not know how to manage or control their emotions in a positive manner, sometimes their children become the target of their frustration.”
Glass’s mission has always been to protect and foster the practice of nurturing children. That’s because she herself experienced at least five types of adverse childhood experiences, as measured in the original CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). If the scale could account for childhood adversity such as structural racism and community violence that’s more likely to occur in communities of color, her burden of ACEs is higher.
Adverse childhood experiences is a term that stems from the landmark ACE Study of 17,000 adults that found a relationship between 10 types of childhood traumas, such as any type of abuse or neglect, and adult-onset of chronic health conditions. Many other types of ACEs — including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence — have been added to subsequent ACE surveys. (ACEs Science 101; Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)
The ACE surveys — the epidemiology of childhood adversity — are one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs affects children’s brains, the short- and long-term health effects of toxic stress, how toxic stress is passed on from generation to generation, and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate ACEs science to solve our most intractable problems. Research has shown how interventions — such as parent education, family therapy, building resilience, providing children and families with basic needs — can offset the impact of toxic stress from ACEs.
Glass, a social justice advocate, grew up as the only child of professional, middle-class parents in Charlotte, NC, and moved to Atlanta in 1990. Her mother was an elementary and middle school principal and her father a procurement officer for government services. She is descended from a long line of people engaged in civic service, including philanthropic activities. That’s why she considered it natural to help others. Not only was her mother an educator, she also served on several local and national boards devoted to improving the well-being of others. Her father provided funds for agencies serving Charlotte’s vulnerable communities. He also provided opportunities for dozens of young boys to obtain employment while in high school and attend college.
ACEs knows no socio-economic barriers and trauma does not make a distinction. Even in this idyllic setting, there was still a dark side to her childhood. Her family life was frequently volatile, and Glass often had to call the police. She also experienced an extremely unfortunate experience, which she described as definitely a childhood adversity, when she was a seven-year-old child.
These experiences helped strengthen Glass’ concern for the welfare of children as she processed the events that had scarred her emotionally as a child.
“As a result of trying to figure out how (the traumatic acts) happened and how to process that, you have feelings that are difficult to process as a child,” she says. “I’ve been concerned about that healing process for young people and their families. I became a peacemaker because many times there was no peace in my household.”
After studying anthropology at Duke University, Glass received a scholarship to attend Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. Following a successful hotel investment and management career, Glass stepped out on faith in 1999 and started a nonprofit, CHEM LABS of America, Inc., for young people like herself who were high achievers in difficult circumstances.
For 15 years, Glass directed CHEM LABS, which offered trauma-responsive youth development services to up to 5,000 youth each year, with funding from foundations and government. The award-winning organization served thousands of youth and families in metro Atlanta by developing programs including STEM education, gang prevention, violence prevention, and homeless youth services. In 2014, CHEM LABS downsized to serve smaller and more targeted populations of less than 50 youth a year. The lab is still operating in Charlotte, NC, and Glass, now a consultant to the organization, provides guidance and also facilitates a few modules. Because of the pandemic, she says they are establishing a virtual experience for the high school and college lab techs this summer.
“As a child,” she explains, “I remember sometimes being misunderstood and judged when I was actually crying out. I had a chance to have a face-to-face meeting with myself and to understand the reason why I responded the way I did. The best way to help me was not a punitive situation but a more compassionate situation.”
That’s the approach stressed by those working in trauma and the ACEs community to develop positive responses to situations that otherwise automatically trigger reactions to childhood trauma.
Glass heard about the ACE Study in 2017 while working on a SAMHSA-funded project for adjudicated youth. She realized the level of trauma exposure for young people was at an all-time high. The heightened level of family trauma and community trauma burdened her tremendously. With this in mind, Glass wanted to know if the traumatic events occurring with youth in Georgia and North Carolina was the same in other southeastern states.
So, Glass enlisted the help of her mother. Together they held focus groups and one-on-one meetings throughout several states, with participants from Georgia to Hawaii. They listened to the experiences and needs of those communities. As a result of these interactions, Glass established the Center for Family and Community Wellness, Inc. (The Well) in Alpharetta, GA, a suburb of Atlanta, with teams in multiple cities throughout the South, including greater Washington, D.C. These teams are trained on ACEs science and best trauma-informed/responsive practices with an emphasis on taking a compassionate rather than a punitive approach.
For the past three years, the Well has conducted ACEs awareness and trauma prevention trainings for agencies, staff, and communities. They present documentaries, such as Resilience and Paper Tigers. And this has had an effect. For example, Atlanta is one of the top sex-trafficking centers in the U.S. where kids as young as 12 were penalized as criminals. After the Well and other organizations consulted with the district attorney and the juvenile court chief judge, “Policies were changed, laws were changed, and the courts started treating the victims for trauma rather than punishing them,” says Glass.
The public health organizer and childhood trauma pioneer is working on a different ACEs scale to bring in the perspectives of black communities in America.
“There are some other traumatic factors that are not on that (CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACEs) scale. Less than two percent of the respondents were people of color. We have developed some models and programs around what we have considered ACEs in the black community.”
Glass says this scale, which will include a total of 15 factors, some of which are not unique to communities of color, will be available to the public in the future. In the meantime, given the added lack of protection for children and families in this current COVID-19 environment, she is leveraging social media, phone calls, Zoom, and email to continue her mission to nurture children and train communities throughout the country to care for them.