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Bester Community of Hope sponsors training conference for social workers

The Herald-Mail - 9/9/2017

There's biological science that explains how traumatic childhood experiences can lead to destructive behavior, and one key to healing a community is dealing with these bad experiences - or preventing them in the first place.

Speaking Friday at Hagerstown Community College'sKepler Theater, Dr. Robert Anda, co-founder of ACE Interface, explained that adverse childhood events can lead to levels of stress so severe that they can be toxic to brain cells.

"If stress is ongoing, they don't develop properly," he said.

Anda was one of the speakers at the "Healing Communities" training conference for social workers sponsored by Bester Community of Hope, an initiative of San Mar Family and Community Services. The conference drew workers from around the region.

Stress and adversity can change a child's DNA, Anda said, and affect how he or she learns to adapt to stressful situations.

Citing a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Anda said the result is these children are at far greater risk of destructive behavior and health issues as adults. The study showed that as the number of traumatic experiences increased, so did the risks for substance abuse, pulmonary disease, depression, liver disease, promiscuity, adolescent pregnancy, violence and other problems.

Adverse childhood experiences included abuse, whether emotional, physical or sexual; emotional or physical neglect; parental separation or divorce; criminal behavior by a household member; or violence, substance abuse or mental illness in the household.

These experiences "rarely occur in isolation," he said.

For example, 81 percent of the respondents who reported substance abuse in the home also reported at least one more adverse experience; nearly 60 percent reported four or more of them.

They're also passed down from generation to generation - the risky behaviors of parents damage children, whose resulting behaviors damage their own children. The question then becomes how to stop this "intergenerational transmission," he said.

But the silver lining is that in understanding "why things are the way they are, we can find solutions," he said. "If these things are so non-random, we can prevent them."

People can "reboot," he said, and learn to create new patterns of dealing with trauma, moving from negative adaptations to "a new path with hope and purpose. I believe it can happen community-wide."

The power to identify issues and intervene lies with a community's health care, education and justice systems, he said.

"If we can prevent (adverse childhood experiences), we can flip the switch," he added.

But as Bester Community of Hope Director Keith Fanjoy noted, there must be a connection between the research and the community.

That means getting all those systems on the same page in recognizing and responding to childhood traumas. After his address, Anda led a discussion on responding to trauma with a panel that included Andy Smith of Hagerstown-based Brothers Who Care; Hagerstown Police Chief Victor Brito; Del. Brett Wilson, R-Washington; Rebecca Jones Gaston, executive director of the Maryland Social Services Administration; and Western Heights Middle School teacher Carolyn Holcomb.

The CDC's study, Gaston said, had been "an eye-opener" that "gives us an opportunity to do our job better," and new tools for "breaking generational cycles."

But it requires being observant enough to understand when a child is in stress, Holcomb noted.

"Children don't articulate the reasons behind their symptoms," she said. "Kids are in trauma, they're coming to class, and they literally can't learn."

She recalled scolding a student one day for not doing his homework, only to learn later that he had found his mother dead the day before. His father had insisted he go to school anyway.

She, Smith and Brito stressed the importance of communicating and establishing credibility.

"A kid doesn't want you to solve their problem," Holcombe said, "they want you to be there. They want to know they're safe."

This was the third large-scale training conference the Community of Hope has sponsored, Fanjoy said, adding that the goal is to take the principles learned at San Mar and share them with the community.


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