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Long-term impact of childhood trauma worse for low-income kids

LA School Report | April 7, 2014

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images-3A new study by the California Department of Public Health has found that childhood trauma has a long-term impact on a child’s life, and the consequences are far more prevalent among children from low-income families.

It is an especially acute issue for LA Unified, which has among the highest concentrations of low-income students in the state, with more than 80 percent living at or below the poverty line.

Results of the study were released this morning at a California Assembly committee hearing at the Los Angeles Central Library, led by Roger Dickinson, a Democrat representing Sacramento and Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development.

The data presented linked exposure to childhood trauma with increased risk for a wide range of health problems. It was based on a survey of more than 9,500 adults, the largest and most comprehensive study ever conducted in California on this issue.

The researchers found that, compared with those who did not suffer childhood trauma, California adults with repeated traumatic experiences in childhood were:

  • 500 percent more likely to suffer depression
  • 350 percent more likely to smoke tobacco
  • 90 percent more likely to engage in binge drinking
  • 63 percent more likely to have a heart attack
  • 60 percent more likely to be obese

The survey also found that exposure to childhood trauma was surprisingly common, in that 61 percent of California adults suffered at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and 25 percent experienced three or more ACEs during childhood. ACEs were described in the survey as experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; living in a household with mental illness, substance abuse, or domestic violence; having separated or divorced parents; or having an incarcerated parent.

Although exposure to childhood trauma occurred in all California communities, negative effects were concentrated among those with low incomes.

For example, more than half (52 percent) of low income Californians exposed to four or more ACEs during childhood reported experiencing serious psychological distress during their lifetimes.

However, fewer than one quarter of higher income Californians (22 percent) reported similar levels of psychological distress, even when exposed to an equal number of ACEs.

In his testimony, Dr. Steve Wirtz, Chief of Injury Surveillance and Epidemiology at the California Department of Mental Health and co-author of the study, suggested that income serves as “buffer” that reduces the effect of ACEs.

“One in four California children experience three or more repeated traumas, such as family mental health, incarceration, violence, and substance abuse issues,” he said. “It is the cumulative impact of these multiple adverse events that take such a toll on our children and their full potential. It’s a problem that warrants more attention from parents, community leaders, and state policymakers.”

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