Let’s admit it. State agencies tasked with given the noble mission of protecting children from abuse and neglect are essentially running band-aid dispensaries. The brave workers who staff these beleaguered agencies enter a human battlefield every day charged with the assignment of trying to mend the broken lives of mothers, fathers, and other various adults living in households struggling to be safe havens for children. Sometimes band-aids can help close wounds from the damaged childhoods many of these adults have faced and healing allows them to become better caregivers than they ever had. In too many cases, however, band-aids can’t heal the deep injuries caused by what are now referred to as “ACEs” or adverse childhood experiences. As a result, their children often become the next victims in line to suffer physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect. Often the brilliant spirits of these children are dimmed; sometimes they are extinguished, despite our best intentions and fallible human efforts.
Many in Massachusetts continue to mourn the death of 2-year old Baby Bella and are confounded as to how such a bright and hopeful child could have met such a sad end. The terrible truth is there is great sense in this seemingly senseless tragedy.
Over a decade ago, CDC and Kaiser Permanente conducted the seminal Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, the largest study of its kind ever done to examine the health and social effects of adverse childhood experiences over the lifespan. It involved 17,000 participants from Kaiser’s pool of HMO members who were asked to identify which of ten ACEs they had experienced growing up. These included: abuse (physical, sexual or emotional), neglect (physical or emotional), and living in a household experiencing divorce or separation, alcohol/substance abuse, mental illness, violence, suicidal behavior and/or imprisonment of a household member.
Researchers documented that the more ACEs a person had experienced, the more likely they would engage in high risk health behaviors, including smoking, overeating, abusing alcohol or drugs, having 50 or more sexual partners, etc. For example, an ACE score of 6 increased by 4,600 percent one’s chances of becoming an IV drug user. Individuals with an ACE score of ten faced an astoundingly high likelihood that they would find themselves living on the street, serving a life sentence in prison, or dead by their own hand.
Researchers then were able to link the high-risky behaviors of these individuals to the most common causes of disease and death in our country, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, to name a few. With an ACE score of 4 or more, the likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increased 390%; hepatitis, 240%; depression 460%; suicide, 1,220%.
Clearly, billions of dollars are spent each year as child welfare, health/mental health, law enforcement and court systems struggle to deal with the aftermath of child maltreatment. If we want to prevent abuse and neglect and ensure each child’s right to the safe and healthy childhood they deserve, every person - whether governor or grandmother, neighbor or legislator, mother or mayor - must make a commitment to support vulnerable parents, and reduce children’s exposure to adverse childhood experiences. We must interrupt the trajectory that leads traumatized children to become traumatized adults who then traumatize their children.
Doing this will first require a shift in our personal and collective thinking. We cannot continue to marginalize those who engage in high risk health behaviors as being “bad people” who just lack morals and the will power to get their lives together. As the ACE study demonstrated, many are simply trying to survive emotionally by numbing the pain and trying to erase the memories of their traumatic, dysfunctional childhoods. Unfortunately, these survival strategies for coping work but only temporarily before they begin to create their own web of problems, such as injected drug use, alcoholism, morbid obesity, chronic depression, etc. As a result, too many find themselves living the kind of life they swore they would never replay for their own children.
I don’t know the reasons Baby Bella’s aunt publicly described Bella’s mother Rachelle as “a very, very angry woman” or why the mother turned to drugs, prostitution, and a string of men with their own demons. I don’t know what drove Michael McCarthy, Baby Bella’s alleged murderer, to punch the life out of her tiny body. But the ACE study helps me imagine why.
How many adverse experiences rocked Michael McCarthy’s world when he was an innocent child with all the promising possibilities of life before him? What traumas did Rachelle suffer through when she was the bright, hopeful child that was later reflected in Bella’s beautiful face? The confirmed links between traumatic childhood experiences and later adult dysfunction and disease, does not dictate that those who hurt children should not be held accountable. But it may help us understand why a mother who described Bella as “my love, my soul, my life” was unable to keep the most precious person in her life safe from the abuser who killed her.
Jetta Bernier, Executive Director
MassKids ~ Prevent Child Abuse Massachusetts