BELFAST, Maine — Years ago, when Patrick Walsh was working as a victim and witness advocate for Waldo and Knox counties, he saw a lot of heartbreaking situations involving young children who suffered abuse or neglect.
“A common comment people made was, ‘this child’s life was ruined.’” Walsh, now the director of prevention services for Broadreach Family & Community Services, said last week. “That struck me. I couldn’t accept that.”
He believed there must be ways to help children that had suffered from trauma and tragedy when they were young. Later, when Walsh learned of a major longitudinal study on adverse childhood experiences — showing the long-term consequences of unaddressed trauma — he became even more galvanized to help find a solution. The study was done by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, and included more than 17,000 people. Through it, researchers connected adverse childhood experiences such as physical abuse, alcohol or drug abuse in the household or emotional neglect with many social problems and diseases including cancer and asthma.
“If you think of all the health-related consequences, those costs add up,” Walsh said. “The cost of these negative experiences is too much to bear.”
That’s one reason Walsh wants to get the word out that there are ways to address childhood abuses and other early traumatic experiences. A summit about the study’s findings, and particularly about strategies to build resilience, attracted about 70 people Friday morning to the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast.
“It’s easy to fall into a trap of saying when these bad things happen to people, the harm done to them is irreversible,” Walsh said. “I wanted to ensure that our community has a better understanding of the study, and also of the promise of building resilience.”
Sue Mackey Andrews of the Maine Resiliency Building Network said at the summit that the effects of adverse childhood experiences can, but do not have to last a person’s whole life. She told the educators, health care providers and others present that they can help foster resiliency in people by being “positive mirrors,” reflecting back their strengths, rather than their traumas.
“Ask people what happened to you, rather than what’s wrong with you,” she said.
Wesley Neff of Maine Families, a home visiting program, said that when she goes into the homes of new parents, it is a good opportunity to prevent adverse experiences for their babies.
“Our work is to notice what’s going well and name interactions that are going positively,” she said. “People are very motivated that the things that happened to them don’t happen to their children. It’s a time when you can hold up a different mirror and really succeed.”
For more information on resiliency and adverse childhood experiences, visit the website www.maineaces.org or call Wesley Neff at 342-5971 ext. 1021.