It’s ‘not what’s wrong with the child, but what happened to the child’
School, mental health, court, government, law enforcement and other professionals huddled this past week at the Little Washington Theatre at the urging of the Rappahannock County Juvenile Court to learn about “Trauma Informed Care” for children and adults.
“This Trauma Informed Care is a huge wave that is going to crash over the whole Commonwealth of Virginia,” predicted Rappahannock Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Melissa Cupp, describing how entire court, school and hospital systems alike are already “training every person” on their staffs about the mind-altering effects of trauma.
“It’s definitely coming and I’m confident that five years from now there will be nobody in Virginia who doesn’t know about Trauma Informed Care,” the judge told the audience of local professionals.
Joining the judge on stage for a panel discussion were Rappahannock County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley, Mental Health Association of Fauquier County Executive Director Sallie Morgan, Rappahannock region child and family counselor Jane Probst, and moderator Kimberly Morris of Rappahannock Social Services.
“We have a lot to talk about tonight,” began Cupp, after attendees watched the film, “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.”
The film traces what our culture is facing today and how to best treat families dealing with “toxic stress,” or trauma, and how armed with this knowledge schools, hospitals, law enforcement, court systems and more can act quickly to mitigate its effects.
“The reason that I thought it was good to have a viewing for professionals is because I think that this is something that every parent needs to know about,” said the Rappahannock judge. “I think they need a system of people who they can trust and go to and talk about this and discuss it. And if we have parents that are learning the information, without making sure all the professionals know the same information, then there might be some disconnect there.
“When I had my kids and went to my pediatrician she told me things like are you using well water, are you using car safety seats, are you putting sunscreen on,” Cupp continued, “but she never said, ‘Hey, there are these 10 things that you have to make sure these things don’t happen to your kid’ . . . or your child’s going to have a 20-year lower life expectancy.”
The hour-long film details the significant impact that the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study has had of late on gaining a deeper understanding of how to compassionately respond to those who struggle with the symptoms of trauma, both children and adults alike.
Many of the 100 or so attendees, who from the county government included Hampton District Supervisor John Lesinski and Hampton BOS candidate Keir Whitson, were able to take the ACE test, to find out their own personal ACE score and in doing so better understand how easily people are traumatized.
The ACE screening consists of 10 questions, and for each “yes” response a 1 is entered, for a maximum score of 10. Questions pertain to a person’s first 18 years of life and surround everything from personally witnessing or experiencing verbal, physical, sexual and substance abuse, to divorce, suicide and incarceration.
Surprisingly, even in the roomful of professionals, there were numerous high scores, including four 5s, five 6s, one 7, one 8, and one 9. On the opposite end of the results were nine zeros, with the remainder under 5.
“So we have a collective ACE score of 2.94. Just under 3,” revealed child and family counselor Jane Probst, who administered the questionnaire. “So just imagine: this is a screening . . . specifically for professionals. We all worked hard to get to where we are. And we have protective factors, we have insurance, we have an education, we have a community that supports us, and we’re in a county where a lot of people don’t have that.”
Probst said when she administered the ACE screening at Rappahannock County Public Schools there was a “collective score of 4.5, which was pretty close to five.”
“You are thirty-two times more likely to have learning or behavioral issues if you have an ACE score of 4 or more. That’s huge,” observed Sallie Morgan of the Fauquier Mental Health Association. “So part of it is just learning to think differently and to ask questions differently. To think not what’s wrong with the child, but what happened to the child? So when there are behavioral issues the teacher is not using punitive or confrontational techniques in the classroom, but quietly pulling the individual aside . .. to a safe quiet place.”
“My wish would be that every professional that comes to court would know about the ACE study, would know how trauma impacts kids’ behavior,” Cupp remarked. “It’s not the kids that are bad, it’s that they are experiencing such high levels of adversity that is changing the way they are functioning.”
As Superintendent Grimsley would stress later, the judge left no question that Rappahannock has its share of trauma-driven behavior.
“It’s in Rappahannock County also that our children are experiencing stress,” Cupp said. “And you do think, ‘What can they be stressed about?’ But they are experiencing tremendous stress and it’s causing this behavior . . . So when you see a child who is acting what we would call ‘badly’ we know that it’s because of their brain functioning — they’re not choosing to behave badly. We can’t just say stop being bad.
“So that’s what I hope we all have an awareness of,” she said, pointing out that within the court system “every kid on juvenile probation gets an ACE score that gets sent to the judge.”
When asked about barriers to Trauma Informed Care, Probst replied: “I know in the court system people perceive trauma informed practices as letting people off the hook, and that’s something that law enforcement talks about. Well, compassion doesn’t mean that you’re letting somebody off the hook, you’re still holding them accountable, but you’re holding them accountable with compassion.”
Morgan said her mental health association that serves this region has “built discussion of trauma into all of the training that we do. We’ve trained 1,600 people in Fauquier and Rappahannock counties — that’s a big percentage of our population — and that’s teachers, that’s law enforcement, social services, parents, coaches, a whole range of folks . . . and we’re now reaching out to churches.”
“Strengthening community partnerships,” Superintendent Grimsley described it, “I think this is a great step in that direction. Having these types of conversations. We saw this year quite a desperate campaign from the schools to say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on here, I know we’re in Rappahannock County but we’re not untouched by these types of toxic levels of stress and our kids are experiencing things that we might not have thought they could in Rappahannock.
“We’re seeing it terms of the data, higher instances of these learning disabilities,” she said, adding that even some RCPS teachers have ACE scores of 5, with higher results for some students.
“What does that mean for some of our children who are really struggling with poverty or neglect or their parents are divorcing and we know that they have substance abuse or incarcerated parents?” Grimsley said, pointing out that “we have done quite a bit in the schools. We became the first school district in the state of Virginia, thanks to the partnership with Sallie Morgan, to become youth mental health first-aiders. All staff must have that training, so at least we know as staff members those red flags and how to get first aid you need to get to the bigger issues.”
And more changes are in the works, the superintendent disclosed.
“Next year you will see us working on our comprehensive plan,” said Grimsley, who signed an extended four-year contract with the school Tuesday night. “But it’s not going to mean anything if we don’t undergird it with social emotional supports that we’re talking about here. So you’re going to see our team working very hard on all the underpinnings throughout our comprehensive plan, creating a K-12 parallel curriculum how we’re explicitly handling [trauma] at every level and how that informs our discipline practices, our hiring practices, our improvement plan practices.”