A new study published by Child Trends says children in Arkansas are more likely to go through an adverse childhood experience (ACE) than all other states. The non-profit organization says such an experience can include children’s parents who divorce, parental incarceration, and living with an adult battling substance abuse. The group says it aims to improve the lives and prospects of children and their families.
Study co-author Vanessa Sacks says 56 percent of children in the state have had at least one adverse childhood experience compared to the national average of 45 percent.
"What's more concerning is Arkansas is one of five states where more children have had at least three adverse childhood experiences compared to the national average," said Sacks. "So 16 percent of children in Arkansas have had three or more adverse experiences compared to about 11 percent of children nationally."
"What we do see among those five states, are ones that have particularly high rates of children in poverty," she says. "Poverty is not only an adverse childhood experience itself, it often goes hand in hand with some of these other experiences such as witnessing or experiencing violence in a child's neighborhood."
Sacks says this is a critical health issue because these experiences can trigger toxic stress in children, which effects their development and is associated with health problems throughout their lives.
"We are seeing signs that the effects of these experiences can be passed on from generation to generation," she says. "Women who are pregnant and experience toxic levels of stress can actually effect their fetus's development. The other way we see these experiences cycle through from generation to generation, is what is an ACE itself, is also a potential negative outcome. For example, living in a household where an adult is abusing drugs or alcohol is an ACE itself and it's also one of the potentially negative outcomes from experiencing that ACE. So you can see how there's potential for these issues to perpetuate themselves."
As to how to prevent and help those going through adverse childhood experiences, Sacks says states are taking lots of different approaches.
"I think the most important thing is for anyone who is working with children and families to screen for adverse childhood experiences so that we can get those children and families the help they need."
While this is a critical and difficult health issue to tackle, Sacks says people are paying attention and that a powerful buffer to help prevent an experience from happening is to have a relationship with a trusted adult.
"This can sometimes seem like a bad news only topic. The good news is that we are increasingly understanding the ways to support and protect children from the effects of adverse experiences," she says. "Policy makers and practitioners are paying more attention now, more than ever to this critical public health issue and the ways we can get families' help that they need."