Adverse Childhood Experiences Research Drives University–Community Collaboration to Build Community Resilience

Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 29, Number 2

By Heather Larkin, David A. Wallace, Anthony Cortese, Katharine Briar-Lawson, Camela M. Hughes, Dana Peterson, Lisa Good, and Sreyashi Chakravarty

This article describes the university– community collaboration that developed in the Capital Region of New York over 12 years, using research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to build community resilience and inform policies and practices. Highly attended ACE-related presentations held at the University at Albany (UAlbany) gave rise to ACE Think Tank and Action Teams and the Healthy Environments and Relationships that Support (HEARTS) initiative. The work of HEARTS has been accelerated through an investment by the Health Federation of Philadelphia and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Mobilize Action for Resilient Communities (MARC) and sustained through leadership by LaSalle School. Here, we highlight some of these developments and regionwide impacts.

The HEARTS/MARC journey demonstrates how universities can collaborate with child welfare to improve outcomes for children and families by using research to inform policies and practices; strengthen professional practice; and influence polices, programs, and social change. Such translational research involves capacity-building with coordinated efforts to maximize impacts.

Our initiative sought to be data-informed. In 2009, as a result of UAlbany’s outreach, the New York State Council on Children and Families (NYS CCF) funded ACE and resilience questions in the New York State Omnibus Survey. UAlbany data analysis showed troubling findings on ACE prevalence in a representative sample of New York adults, averaging 1.8 ACE categories per respondent. Now, New York State ACE data are collected through the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS).

The HEARTS Initiative
HEARTS agency partners represent multiple service sectors, spanning the fields of child welfare, criminal justice, education, disabilities, aging, mental health, and addictions. HEARTS spread its influence beyond our region through participation in national initiatives, such as the MARC project, significant training efforts, and development of academic publications. The HEARTS/MARC journey demonstrates how universities can collaborate with human service providers and other agencies to transform organizations, their cultures, and practices, and promote policies reflecting trauma-informed services.

Initially, Prevent Child Abuse America funded ACE Think Tank and Action Teams. This led to local grant funding from the Charles R. Wood Foundation, which launched the HEARTS initiative for ACE Response in 2011. The ACE Response website (see and brochure ( were created by UAlbany leaders to disseminate ACE-resilience knowledge and examples of ACE-informed policies, programs, and practices. By 2014, HEARTS quickly had evolved into a collaborative between UAlbany and 15 agency leaders, two state agencies, and one health insurance company, working together advancing responses to ACEs and mobilizing community resilience. In 2014, the HEARTS initiative received UAlbany’s President’s Award for Exemplary Community Engagement, along with a NYS Legislative Resolution and Senate Proclamation honoring our ACE Response work.

Key elements in the movement toward ACE-informed programs, practices, and policies have included: (1) raising community awareness of ACEs and their consequences (through training, media coverage, building cross organizational change strategies, and trauma-informed missions); (2) advancing resilience and recovery by strengthening social networks and communities of practice within and across sectors; (3) supporting staff ’s ability to role model by addressing their own self-care; (4) integrating best practices addressing ACEs in both services and agency cultures; and (5) creating mutual aid supports for agency leaders in carrying out educational, awareness-raising activities and policy advocacy. As two lead child-family serving agencies involved in the HEARTS Initiative began to implement these ACE-informed elements, the work of HEARTS began to intersect with an inter-departmental Service Outcomes Action Research (SOAR) Project already being carried out to evaluate and develop these programs.

SOAR is a related university partnership that began in 2000 to develop a data-informed practice process within two local agencies providing residential and community-based services to adolescents referred for juvenile justice, child welfare, and specialized educational needs. LaSalle School and St. Anne Institute later became leaders within the HEARTS Initiative, given the level of ACEs among their clients and their approach to trauma-informed practices. Over the past 20 years, agency administrators and staff collaborated with faculty and students from UAlbany’s School of Criminal Justice and School of Social Welfare (and at times the School of Education and School of Public Health), developing program logic models of how treatment processes and interventions are connected to expected outcomes. A culture of inquiry is fostered as UAlbany’s inter-departmental research team works closely with agency practitioners to identify, create, and implement key measures of client characteristics, treatment services, and outcomes. Quantitative and qualitative methods are used to create a process through which practice and program decision- making takes into account data collected, including implementing trauma-informed educational and treatment practices to address ACE backgrounds of residents. These data can be further applied in policy advocacy efforts to guide resources toward program development responsive to the ACE characteristics of those served.

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