Oklahoma legislators are showing interest in research advancing the understanding of adverse childhood experiences as a public health crisis.
The Tulsa-based Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Adversity hosted conferences last week in Tulsa and Oklahoma City attended by social service representatives and some state leaders. Researchers discussed the science of adversity and resilience, as well as real-world applications to address the negative effects of trauma on developing minds.
Laura Porter, co-founder of ACE Interface, presented research on how culture can heal, drawing upon years of her work in Washington state developing self-healing communities. She noted that a half-dozen state legislators were in attendance all day in Oklahoma City.
“That is an amazing level of commitment,” Porter said. “Usually when an elected official walks in, I think, ‘They’ll be in there 10 minutes. They’ll stand up, be introduced and then disappear.’
“No, yours stayed. So I think there’s a lot of interest here. I would be very encouraged.”
Adverse childhood experiences — or ACEs — include household dysfunction, neglect, abuse, poverty, crime, substance abuse and mental illness. Science points to ACEs as strong predictors of cognitive, behavioral, and physical and mental health problems.
The Tulsa World examined ACEs and their impact on Oklahoma in an eight-day series in July.
Porter’s research has found that communities that engage in self-healing practices significantly reduce many public-health risks, such as violence, substance abuse arrests, hospitalization of women and children, teen pregnancy, low birth weights and school dropouts.
Oklahoma is No. 1 in the nation in youths up to age 17 who have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences, according to the 2017 National Survey of Children’s Health by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Self-healing communities build up education capacity to understand how people are affected by negative experiences during development and how to insulate them from that trauma, Porter said. Those types of communities will hold regular group conversations about what is being done to fuel a cycle of innovating and measuring to improve outcomes.
“You want to expand the number of people that are aware and able to take action,” Porter said. “You don’t have to control them. They just need to understand the science, because they can just go help someone down the street; they don’t have to be coming to meetings.”
Researchers at the conference reinforced a promising idea — that stronger and healthier social networks should be built around parenting adults, including through social and emotional support.
Porter said social isolation is “really, really difficult” for humans and that increasingly parents feel cut off. Scientists think some family problems arise out of that isolation.
Social bridging is another focus. Porter described it as the notion that groups interact in a community but rarely outside of their friendship circle. Some communities struck by natural disasters are intentionally building social bridging as a norm.
“I think in many ways this kind of work is not as dependent on programming,” Porter said. “It’s equally dependent on the residents of the community taking leadership roles and healing the community. I think it might resonate well (in Oklahoma).”
Her presentation noted that Washington state’s investment of $4 million a year generates a $28 million annual savings through improvements in teen pregnancy, high school dropouts, out-of-home custody placements and juvenile crime.
Jennifer Hays-Grudo, director of the Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Adversity, emphasized that ACEs cost North America about $780 billion a year and Europe $450 billion per year. Those are primarily health-care costs, she said, and don’t include lost productivity or lives.
“(Researchers) calculated in Europe and North America that a 10% reduction in ACEs would reduce costs to our society by $108 billion a year,” Hays-Grudo said. “So we want to change the world, starting in Oklahoma.”