Iowans Thrive Blog
Featuring stories, research, and news on Iowa's movement to respond to ACEs
When Melissa works with people to improve their health or mental well-being, she begins by focusing on their strengths. Building up their self-esteem then allows her to have conversations about why they have certain behaviors or habits and what steps they can take together to address challenges. Starting with what’s great about them opens the door for change.
“You have all this stuff just stacked on you,” Melissa said. “That’s how you get so lost and think about everything that just sucks about you. You miss all the good stuff.”
Melissa understands this through her own experiences. As the chaos and trauma of her childhood layered on, she often believed in the labels she was given by those in systems meant to help her. Over time, a combination of self-reflection, fierce determination, and supportive programs and relationships helped her see different possibilities.
Possibilities that led to putting on a cap and gown as she prepared to graduate with a master’s degree in organizational leadership last May.
The moment felt “so surreal,” Melissa said, but she also recognizes it as a culmination of decisions that built a new path of hope for her future. She shares her story now so that others who are struggling may feel that hope, too, and those who make decisions or work within systems meant to support children can stop adding to the harm and provide support to families sooner.
I want lawmakers and people who are determining where funds go to realize that if we put something into people, we will get something out of them. It’s about getting parents over those barriers that they’re facing, and then setting up the kids to where they don’t have to have those same barriers.
At a hearing with Iowa legislators, Brianna (Bri) Deason shared her experiences living in foster care, and how it took her 17 years to find the support she sought throughout her childhood—right as she was aging out of the system. She asked lawmakers to support a bill that would increase the age limit for foster care to 21 and make other policy changes to better support young people in the child welfare system. Although nervous to present, Bri felt power from the experience; the bill was signed into law in May 2022.
“I think so many people believe that the system is the way the system is,” Bri said. “I used to believe that, too, but it’s not true. We have the tools and the ability to change the system to do what it needs to do.”
While a student at the University of Iowa, Bri has served as a youth development specialist, engaging young people in sharing their experiences with state systems to encourage changes. They’ve pushed for things like having access to better hygiene products while in detention, training social workers and foster families on how to support youth from diverse backgrounds, and paying young people for their expertise in systems-change work.
Much of what she and her peers encourage is a healing-centered engagement approach to addressing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), an approach that fosters collective healing and well-being for young people and adult allies through principles that include having agency to create what you want to see in systems and the community.
For Bri, the work “is about creating systems that actually humanize the humans they’re supposed to be working for.” It’s work she’s deeply connected to because of what she experienced throughout her childhood.
You likely see firsthand how families experience stress and adversity in your community and the important work taking place to connect families with services and supports. Informing elected leaders about what is happening in their districts can ensure they are making decisions that promote the conditions for families to thrive.
Groups in two Iowa communities especially have engaged in advocacy with elected officials. These groups consist primarily of government and nonprofit representatives who understand the role they can play in educating their representatives as they weigh policy decisions, without telling them how to vote:
Wapello County Healthy Communities is a group in the Ottumwa area that regularly connects about 40 representatives from organizations in early childhood, education, health and human services, government, and economic and workforce development sectors. Since the 1990s, it has hosted a legislative forum each December. State and federal leaders and their staff are invited to learn about issues related to family and child well-being in the region and to share their priorities. Elevating issues collectively also has encouraged changes, like speeding up the rate of Medicaid reimbursements to providers and looking at childcare solutions that improve the quality of care.
The Thriving Families Alliance in the Council Bluffs area brought organizations in the family support sector together to inform legislators of their work and the needs they see during the 2022 state session. Organizing the forum was the next step in Executive Director Patricia Russmann’s efforts to connect issues related to family well-being with the priorities leaders are focused on. She also has engaged in conversations with the business community and with local officials to help elevate family support as a part of their goals.
Here are ideas Pat McReynolds, Regional Director of the Mahaska Wapello Early Childhood Iowa, and Russmann with Thriving Families offer for engaging in advocacy:
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study was groundbreaking in that it showed a link between childhood trauma and adult health outcomes. The more types of childhood trauma adults reported experiencing, the greater their likelihood of having a wide range of health and mental health challenges, including anxiety, heart disease, substance use disorder, and diabetes. Iowa’s study, for example, shows that individuals with four or more ACEs are 5.3 times more likely to have COPD and 7.7 times more likely to have depression than those reporting zero ACEs.
The ACE Study has spurred a movement focused on trauma-informed care, which considers what has happened to someone who may be experiencing challenges, rather than what is wrong with them. It also has led to using the ACE Study survey to measure individuals’ level of ACEs to better understand how past experiences may be influencing their current well-being.
Knowing the connection between ACEs and adult outcomes is critical in working with individuals to heal from trauma and to prevent and mitigate ACEs in the future. Already, the ACE Study has inspired important policy and practice changes. But as we’ve learned more about the ACEs research, we also recognize that the ACEs survey should only be used within certain carefully established settings.
Here are three reasons why sharing the survey with individuals may be problematic:
This fall, we are launching an 18-month effort to expand engagement and collaboration with groups working to respond to ACEs in local communities across Iowa. The focus of this project will be to build collective advocacy efforts to improve supports for children and families, especially in underserved and marginalized communities.
This work is made possible by a $50,000 Community Change Grant from Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation, which focuses on innovative projects that address key health issues by engaging systems change at the community level. Our work also continues to be generously supported by Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, which recently awarded Iowa ACEs 360 a three-year operating grant to focus on systems-change work that improves health outcomes for children and families.