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Oprah Winfrey is raising awareness about childhood trauma and the need for trauma-informed care.
Childhood trauma—like abuse, neglect, and poverty—changes a child’s brain, body and behavior.
Behavior is often the first “red flag” of trauma.
But too often caregivers, teachers, and law officers misinterpret that red flag as “bad behavior” that needs “fixing.” They are rarely trained on the science of childhood trauma and how it affects Latino and all children.
That is why Oprah Winfrey returned the city where she grew up facing poverty, sexual abuse and other negative experiences to explore the science of childhood trauma on 60 Minutes with trauma expert Dr. Bruce Perry.
Science Behind Adverse Childhood Experiences
What started as inquiry into high patient drop-out rates at an obesity clinic in 1985, resulted in “the largest, most important public health study you never heard of.”
Dr. Vincent Felitti, chief of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, began digging into patient records and doing face-to-face interviews.
He discovered that many of the patients were sexually abused as children.
Felitti brought his findings to CDC researchers. Medical epidemiologist Dr. Robert Anda agreed to help conduct a survey on patients who would be going through the Department of Preventive Medicine for a comprehensive medical evaluation.
From 1995 to 1997, Felitti and Anda asked over 17,000 patients about 10 types of adverse childhood experiences—sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, a parent who’s mentally ill or alcoholic, a mother who’s a domestic violence victim, a family member who’s been incarcerated, a loss of a parent through divorce or abandonment, emotional neglect, and physical neglect—in what be known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study.
Felitti and Anda found a direct link between childhood trauma and chronic disease, mental illness, time in prison, and work issues, such as absenteeism. They also found that ACEs usually didn’t happen in isolation. More ACEs increased risk of physical, mental and social problems.
Learn more in this three-part series from Jane Ellen Stevens, the founder of ACEsTooHigh.
“Some of the increases are enormous and are of a size that you rarely ever see in health studies or epidemiological studies. It changed my thinking dramatically,” says Anda, according to Stevens.
Felitti and Anda have since published more than 60 papers about the ACEs Study.
Since then many pediatricians and neuroscientists have contributed to the growing body of brain research.
One is Dr. Bruce Perry.
Perry helped to determine how toxic it is for children to grow up with trauma, constantly flooded by stress hormones in a state of fight, flight or freeze.
“That very same sensitivity that makes you able to learn language just like that as a little infant makes you highly vulnerable to chaos, threat, inconsistency, unpredictability, violence,” Perry said in the 60 Minutes broadcast.
Stress hormones impair developing brains in both architecture and function.
“[Kids] fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults,” Stevens said.
For these reasons, Oprah Winfrey doesn’t want caregivers, educators and law enforcement to fall in the same kind of rut of asking, “What is wrong with these kids?”
Instead, she wants people to ask, “What happened to these kids?”
Oprah Returns to Milwaukee
In 2017, Oprah Winfrey learned about an epidemic of trauma passed from generation to another in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (18.7% Latino) through the “A Time to Heal” series in the local Journal Sentinel.
Oprah grew up in Milwaukee and was drawn to the examples of trauma-informed care at the the St. Aemilian orphanage and the Nia Imani Family Center, which provides transitional housing for homeless women and children.
On March 11, 2018, Oprah reported on childhood trauma and how these two centers in Milwaukee were applying a trauma-informed approach with Dr. Perry on 60 Minutes.
“It’s not lost on me the irony of being back in the same city, Milwaukee, where I grew up on welfare, poor, a lot of negative experiences, sexual abuse, and all of that,” Winfrey says on 60 Minutes.
The two centers focus on a person’s experiences before trying to correct their behavior.
“We might not be able to ever prevent the stuff that happens to kids,” said Tim Grove, the clinical director at St. Aemilian. “But we are fully in charge of how we respond when we see it.”
Oprah points out, and Dr. Perry agreed, that although many people claim to have made it and pulled themselves up by their boot straps, they had some help them through the healing process and someone help pull up their boots.
You don’t have to be a psychiatrist or an expert in behavioral health to make a difference in a traumatized child’s life. A stable relationship with a caring adult can buffer some of the negative effects and help children heal from and overcome trauma.
Oprah opens up on 60 Minutes Overtime about the teachers who helped her heal by making her feel valued.
“This story has had more impact on me than practically anything I’ve ever done,” Oprah Winfrey said in the 60 Minutes Overtime broadcast. “It’s changed the way I see everyone.”
This story has had more impact on me than practically anything I’ve ever done. It's changed the way I see everyone.Oprah Winfrey
Watch Oprah and Dr. Perry on 60 Minutes and learn about how ACEs and trauma change a child’s brain, body and behavior and why a trauma-informed approach is so important, especially for Latinos. Latino kids face more trauma than their white peers and face lasting mental health issues.
What Can You Do?
You can get Handle With Care started in your community!
Download the free Salud America! “Handle With Care Action Pack” to start a Handle With Care program, in which police notify schools when they encounter children at a traumatic scene, so schools can provide support right away.
Over 65 cities have started Handle With Care.
The Action Pack, which contains materials and technical assistance to help school and police leaders everywhere plan their own Handle With Care program, was created by Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of the Salud America! Latino health equity program at UT Health San Antonio, with help from the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, which started the Handle With Care program in 2013.
And sign up for the Salud America! “Trauma Sensitive School Action Pack.” It is a free guide with coaching to help school personnel talk to decision-makers, build a support team, craft a system to identify and support traumatized students, and more!