Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 29, Number 1
by Audrey Smolkin
On the day that the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s long-planned-for trainings on race, trauma, and resiliency began, I anxiously watched our large audience arrive and settle in for the morning session. The first piece of the training—focusing on the brain science of trauma and its impact on children—went smoothly. Our participants were a diverse mix of community providers, state child welfare workers, youth violence prevention street workers, educators, and others. The afternoon session was about racism and its relationship to trauma and resilience. And as it began, I realized that I was about to go from program leader to participant.
It was about halfway through the activity when I started looking enviously at other people’s Legos. It wasn’t just that they had more Legos (which they did) but that, in my view, their Legos were better. Shinier! More colors! Better shapes! Even though my group only had a small amount of old, cracked Legos, my team was still responsible for making a whole city, just like all the other groups.While others in my group were working hard to make what they could from our options, I was considering snagging some of the pretty Legos from the group next to me. I went up to the director to ask for more and she quite literally ignored me, as if she couldn’t see me at all. Even though I knew this was just an exercise, even though I knew that I had requested an activity on difference on equity, I wandered back to my seat with a mix of anger, shame, and a dawning sense of how starting out unevenly meant I could not catch up to the other, better provisioned teams.
Months before this activity, I had been talking with the University of Massachusetts Medical School child and family team about how to do meaningful training sessions on trauma and resilience through the lens of racial equity. Children involved in child-serving systems such as child welfare and juvenile justice are known to have experienced high levels of trauma: trauma that has brought the child into the system (such as abuse or neglect in their home), trauma in being removed from their caretakers, or the trauma of institutionalization. Even children who are not removed from their homes but experience various mental health support or family resource settings may have undergone individual, family, or community-level trauma.
While trauma trainings are increasingly more common, few focus on the issue of race and its interconnection with trauma. Children of color are disproportionately more likely to come into contact with child welfare and juvenile justice systems, more likely to stay in the system for a longer amount of time, and more likely to be placed in more secure settings. While in comparison to other states Massachusetts has relatively low rates of juvenile incarceration and involvement in the child welfare system, rates of trauma are still high, and disproportionately affect children and families of color. These facts had led to our discussions about how to provide trainings focused on racism, trauma, and resilience.
The Science of Trauma and its Connection to Race
Recent studies of trauma by neuroscientists have found that children who experience adverse childhood events (ACEs) are at a high risk of suffering long-term negative outcomes. The more ACEs a child has, the more likely that child is to have negative health, behavior, and lifepotential outcomes (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). These outcomes include:
• Alcoholism & alcohol abuse
• Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
• Fetal death
• Health-related quality of life
• Illicit drug use
• Ischemic heart disease (IHD)
• Liver disease
• Risk for intimate partner violence
• Multiple sexual partners
• Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
• Suicide attempts
• Unintended pregnancies
• Early initiation of smoking
• Early initiation of sexual activity
• Adolescent pregnancy
Children of all backgrounds and races experience ACEs, but some are more common among racial minorities. According to data from Child Trends, 61 percent of Black (non-Hispanic) children and 51 percent of Hispanic children experience at least one ACE, while only 40 percent of white children experience one or more (Sacks & Murphey, 2018). Some recent studies have argued that being non- White in America is itself a potential form of trauma.
Because children of color may experience challenges that lead to a higher risk for negative long-term outcomes, damage done at an early age may alter their life trajectory. Scholars are just recently focusing on the that role racism and discrimination play in the creation of negative mental and physical outcomes among individuals of color.While more work remains to be done in this area, the link between racial discrimination and increased psychological disorders is clear, and the mental health symptoms a person experiences as a result of racism has been compared to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although PTSD is normally linked to one individual precipitating event, vicarious experiences and racial micro- and macroaggressions can contribute to a cumulative effect that can cause or magnify PTSD symptoms (University of Connecticut Culture and Mental Health Disparities Lab, 2018).
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Audrey Smolkin is the director of Child and Family Policy at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She is responsible for identifying, developing, and overseeing new programs, research and evidence-based policy initiatives related to children and families. Her expertise is in child welfare, youth violence prevention, trauma and resilience, and racial equity related to childrenʼs well-being. Before coming to UMass Medical School, Smolkin served as a senior legislative analyst at the Federal Administration for Children and Families. In that capacity, she worked to estimate the federal costs of various welfare and child welfare legislation. She also served as the lead budget and policy analyst on a major childcare expansion that took place under the leadership of the Clinton Administration. To learn more about the universityʼs race, trauma, and resilience trainings, you can contact her at Audrey.Smolkin@umassmed.edu.