In April 2023, the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) sponsored a statewide summit, “Leveraging North Carolina’s Assets to Prevent Child Trauma." Nearly 150 representatives from academia, community and state organizations, lived experience, philanthropy, government agencies, and governing bodies convened in person, and approximately 230 joined the event virtually. Diana “Denni” Fishbein, PhD, director of translational neuro-prevention research and the FRONTIER program at FPG, and Melissa Clepper-Faith, MD, MPH, translational research program and policy coordinator at FPG, organized this two-day event.
“I wanted to bring everybody together to co-create a statewide movement with constituent groups rallying around the same cause, " said Denni Fishbein.
The overarching goal of the summit was to identify common threads across constituent groups in North Carolina, each working to address child trauma, and determine how, together, we can co-create a statewide effort in community and policy spaces to tackle its sources and reduce its incidence. Organizers and participants agree this can be achieved by:
- sharing knowledge and experience about child trauma, its causes, and its prevention;
- bolstering community efforts through a shared understanding of trauma science;
- creating new relationships between individuals and organizations and strengthening existing relationships;
- illuminating the current landscape of child trauma prevention across North Carolina communities to help assess strengths and gaps; and
- beginning a process of generating policy recommendations to prevent child trauma.
What is child trauma?
Fully defining and describing child trauma would take several pages; in brief, child trauma is one or more disturbing events or ongoing experiences that overwhelm a child’s ability to cope and cause many types of long-lasting negative effects. Child trauma includes adverse childhood experiences such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, physical or emotional neglect, domestic or community violence, parental incarceration, divorce or death of a parent, mental illness in the home, natural disasters, or discrimination.
What are the effects of child trauma?
Child trauma can effect physical health, such as by altering brain development or gene expression, and/or effect mental health, resulting in anxiety, depression, anger, irritability, and emotional dysregulation. People who have experienced child trauma are at higher risk for a range of unwanted outcomes in childhood and adulthood, such as difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, poor academic or job performance, substance use and abuse, and involvement in the justice system. The more trauma, the higher the likelihood of these negative outcomes. Protective factors, such as a high quality social supports or access to mental health treatment, can mitigate the adverse effects of child trauma.
What are the sources of child trauma?
Some types of child trauma are not easily prevented, such as a natural disaster or death of a parent. But many types of child trauma are a result of root causes that can be addressed, including structural racism, poverty, lack of basic resources such as food and housing, and lack of access to healthcare including care for mental health and addiction.
Themes identified at the summit
Child trauma has myriad effects and solutions. Not every important idea could be shared at a two-day summit or in its executive summary, but there were a few themes that arose repeatedly:
Preventing child trauma and addressing child trauma to prevent long-term harm require:
- supporting parents to reduce economic stress with access to affordable housing, food, childcare, and dependable employment or income;
- addressing systemic root causes, including structural racism, health inequities, and economic stress;
- transitioning to trauma-informed practices in many settings, including families, schools, communities, child welfare system, healthcare, legislative, and criminal justice;
- interrupting the cycle by addressing trauma in children, adolescents, and young adults before they become parents;
- expanding access to mental health assessment and access for children and parents, including addiction prevention and treatment;
- educating people and organizations to change violent social norms and improve interpersonal relationships; and
- providing universal high-quality early childhood education.
Effective approaches for moving forward include:
- People with lived experience of child trauma must be part of developing policies and programs regarding child trauma.
- There is no silver bullet; preventing child trauma as a society requires a lot of pieces.
- Strategic alignment and collective action are critical; no one person, community organization, agency, foundation, nonprofit, or legislative body can do it alone.
- Prevention and early intervention are better than later intervention.
- Sustainable funding is needed to ramp up evidence-based prevention programs; these programs save society money in the long run.
- Local organizations and philanthropy can make a difference in communities and demonstrate effective strategies.
- Advocacy is an effective tool to institute trauma-informed policies at national, state, or local levels.
We explored some of these themes in greater detail, producing a series of articles on key topics raised during the summit. Click on the links in the boxes below to access all of the articles. And read the full executive summary for the summit in this PDF.
Preventing Child Trauma in North Carolina
“In this event, I wanted to bring everybody together to co-create a statewide movement with constituent groups rallying around the same cause,” said FPG's Diana “Denni” Fishbein. “This summit is a call to action to all those entities across North Carolina invested in mitigating harmful consequences of trauma and preventing the exposure at the outset.”
Supporting and Connecting Organizations Addressing Child Trauma
The necessity of making connections and supporting one another’s efforts came up frequently during our recent statewide summit focused on child trauma. “Some say connection is the opposite of trauma,” said Vernisha Crawford, MS, CEO of Trauma Informed Institute and founder of the BYE Foundation.“ Connection could be the path and avenue to healing.”
Addressing Root Causes of Child Trauma
What are the root causes of trauma in childhood? It’s a critical question, because child trauma has been shown to lead to adverse effects on multiple domains of development, and these can last a lifetime, including decreased physical and mental health, difficulties forming healthy relationships, poor performance in school and work, and more.
Addressing Child Trauma in North Carolina: What State Agencies are Doing
In the past few years, many state agencies in North Carolina have begun transitioning to trauma-informed practices to better serve children and families throughout the state. Members from some of these agencies shared their work during the our statewide summit focused on preventing and addressing child trauma.
Advocacy: Turning Science into Policy
Evidence-based strategies to prevent child trauma or mitigate its effects can be translated into policy change. Given the importance of policy change, our two-day statewide summit, “Leveraging North Carolina’s Assets to Prevent Child Trauma,” included information about how to advocate amidst the presentations on child trauma, its causes and effects, and its prevention.
Addressing Child Trauma in North Carolina: What Organizations are Doing
Representatives from dozens of organizations working to help children and families shared their accomplishments and experiences at the statewide summit “Leveraging North Carolina’s Assets to Prevent Child Trauma,” with the goal of sparking new ideas and coming together to create change.
Effective treatments and prevention of addiction are desperately needed, with overdose deaths continuing to rise. In North Carolina, overdose deaths in 2020 were 40% higher than the year before, and the state saw another increase—22%—in overdose deaths in 2021, according to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services data.
Funds from the opioid settlement offer a golden opportunity to address the opioid crisis by preventing child trauma—a major risk factor for addiction—according to many speakers at “Leveraging North Carolina’s Assets to Prevent Child Trauma.”
Vernisha Crawford, Chief Executive Officer at Trauma Informed Institute, facilitated the pre-summit roundtable for the 2023 statewide summit, Leveraging North Carolina's Assets to Prevent Child Trauma. The session featured a diverse group of participants with different viewpoints regarding types and origins of child trauma they believe are most important to address and that require different prevention approaches.
Crawford shares her thoughts on the power of connection in addressing adverse childhood experiences in this article.