MANCHESTER N.H. — Police departments throughout the country respond to thousands of troubling incidents at residences each year where young children are present. These include domestic violence situations, overdoses, sexual assaults and suicide threats.
A growing body of evidence indicates that children exposed to prolonged and excessive traumatic experiences like these may suffer life-long effects.
These stressors, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), can lead to toxic levels of stress that can derail a child’s healthy development. Over time this toxic stress affects (or rewires) a child’s healthy brain development. This has been found to contribute to poor health or behavioral problems later in life.
The greater the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences a young person is exposed to during childhood, the greater the risk for these adult outcomes.
A ground-breaking project in Manchester, N.H. brought the local police department and health and human service agencies together to help prevent and reduce trauma in children exposed to violence.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Response Team, or ACERT as it is called, is comprised of staff members of the Manchester Police Department, YWCA New Hampshire and the local community health center Amoskeag Health — among other community partners.
For the last four years these organizations have worked in tandem to connect hundreds of children and families in Manchester affected by violence to counseling, home visiting, therapeutic services, art therapy and other social services to help children understand and develop strategies to cope effectively with trauma.
The ACERT model has received wide-spread interest and a number of New Hampshire communities are preparing to implement an ACERT. Concord’s team will begin operation this month. Funding for nation-wide replication has been included in a bill to be soon introduced by U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen.
The project’s initial funder, the New Hampshire Children’s Health Foundation, has now released a case study outlining how the ACERT model works and what the Manchester ACERT leadership team has learned since the project’s inception. The study was conducted by public health consultant Laurie Stillman and Boston-based Health Resources in Action with assistance from participating organizations.
Among the study’s findings are:
- Training in appropriate trauma response for police officers and all other project staff members is crucial.
- Visiting families face-to-face a few days after the police have responded to an incident, rather than immediately, increases receptivity to families accepting help and support.
- Barriers, like transportation, to participation in community services must be addressed.
- Building a reliable and extensive referral network among health and human service partners is essential in ensuring families receive the help they need quickly and effectively.
- Collecting and reviewing relevant data helps an ACERT leadership team refine and improve its program and effectiveness.