Childhood Trauma Is Common and Can Be Devastating—But Damage Can Be Overcome

Apr. 7, 2014 / By

Annette Majerowicz
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State Assembly Hearing: Childhood Trauma Is Common and Can Be Devastating—But Damage Can Be Overcome

At Los Angeles Hearing, Researchers Release Groundbreaking Survey Data Linking Child Abuse and Neglect to Heart Attack, Depression, Obesity, Binge Drinking, and Other Health Risks; Experts Say Greatest Effects Concentrated in Low Income Communities

Students and Educators Highlight Approaches Proven to Get Kids Back on Track

Los Angeles, CA – Experiencing trauma and abuse can have a devastating impact on a child’s life, but lots of love and a little community support can help kids recover, according to experts participating in a California Assembly Committee hearing in downtown Los Angeles on Friday. At the hearing, officials from the California Department of Public Health released new data showing that exposure to childhood trauma is a widespread problem, but young people from low income families are most likely to suffer the strongest effects.

“Stories of child abuse and neglect tear at our heartstrings, but it helps to know that kids can overcome most anything if they have the right support. At today’s hearing, we learned about the strategies that work best from the leading experts in California. I am committed to promoting these proven approaches—because all kids deserve a chance to hit their stride, even if they’ve had a rough start,” said Roger Dickinson, Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development, which convened today’s hearing at the Los Angeles Central Public Library.

The data presented by the California Department of Public Health at the hearing definitively links exposure to childhood trauma with increased risk for a wide range of health problems. The data was based on a survey of more than 9,500 adults, and is the largest and most comprehensive study ever conducted in California on this issue.

The researchers found that, compared to those who did not suffer childhood trauma, California adults with repeated traumatic experiences were:

·         500% more likely to suffer depression

·         350% more likely to smoke tobacco

·         90% more likely to engage in binge drinking

·         63% more likely to have a heart attack

·         60% more likely to be obese

The survey also found that exposure to childhood trauma was surprisingly common. Sixty-one percent of Californian adults suffered at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and 25% experienced three or more ACEs during childhood. ACEs were described in the survey as experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; living in a household with mental illness, substance abuse, or domestic violence; having separated or divorced parents; or having an incarcerated parent.

Although exposure to childhood trauma occurred in all California communities, negative effects were concentrated among those with low incomes. For example, more than half (52%) of low income Californians exposed to four or more ACEs during childhood reported experiencing serious psychological distress during their lifetimes. However, fewer than one quarter of higher income Californians (22%) reported similar levels of psychological distress, even when exposed to an equal number of ACEs. In his testimony, Dr. Steve Wirtz, Chief of Injury Surveillance and Epidemiology at the California Department of Mental Health and co-author of the study, suggested that income serves as “buffer” that reduces the effect of ACEs.

“One in four California children experience three or more repeated traumas, such as family mental health, incarceration, violence, and substance abuse issues. It is the cumulative impact of these multiple adverse events that take such a toll on our children and their full potential. It’s a problem that warrants more attention from parents, community leaders, and state policymakers,” said Dr. Wirtz.

Experts also emphasized the link between childhood trauma and poverty. “Twenty-five percent of California children live in poverty, which is a precursor to childhood trauma and has been scientifically proven to impede children’s behavioral, social, emotional, and physical development,” said Jahmal Miller, Deputy Director of California’s Office of Health Equity.

Several witnesses at the hearing outlined successful school-based approaches for helping young people overcome exposure to traumatic events. These include creating effective counseling programs for students in crisis; increasing trust between students and administrators; and developing “Restorative Justice”-based discipline approaches, where students have the opportunity to mediate problems among themselves and reach collaborative solutions as an alternative to suspension-first approaches. In-home support visits from social workers, nurses, and specially trained community members were also cited as leading strategies for overcoming early exposure to childhood trauma.

Robert K. Ross, M.D., President and Chief Executive Officer of The California Endowment, also testified at the hearing. The Endowment is leading efforts to strengthen families and communities through its Health Happens Here, Sons & Brothers, and Building Healthy Communities initiatives.

“Childhood trauma can have a devastating impact on children’s lives, but the right kind of help can strengthen young bodies and minds and set their lives back on the right course,” said Ross. “Success requires heart, courage, resilience—and a little intervention from our schools and communities. I’m very grateful to Assemblyman Dickinson and the Select Committee for bringing this issue the attention it deserves,” said Ross.

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About the Select Committee on Delinquency Prevention and Youth

The Assembly Select Committee on Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development, chaired by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, is dedicated to promoting positive youth development and engagement throughout California’s communities, identifying positive strategies that work, and finding state and federal funding sources for successful programs.

About the California Endowment

The California Endowment, a private, statewide health foundation, was established in 1996 to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities, and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians. Headquartered in downtown Los Angeles, The Endowment has regional offices in Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno, and San Diego, with program staff working throughout the state. The Endowment challenges the conventional wisdom that medical settings and individual choices are solely responsible for people’s health. The Endowment believes that health happens in neighborhoods, schools, and with prevention. For more information, visit The Endowment’s Web site at

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