Iowans Thrive Blog
Featuring stories, research, and news on Iowa's movement to respond to ACEs
Whenever Christine Her’s father desperately missed his parents, he would take their scarf up into the mountains and smell it. Living in Laos at the end of the Vietnam War, her father, along with millions of Hmong people, fled genocide by living in the jungles. At night, he and other boy soldiers, had to patrol the area, avoiding gunfire. They barely had anything to eat. Finally, after two years, a group of boys decided to flee to Thailand without saying goodbye to family. They intended to return with supplies.
But as they made the treacherous journey across the river into Thailand, they were captured by a Thai general, escaped, and then arrested for rushing into the refugee camp together. In jail, they were too weak to fight for their food and nearly died. Eventually, Christine’s grandmother, who had made it to a refugee camp years earlier, came for her father to take him to America. He never did make it back to Laos for his father.
Christine’s mother’s family also fled for Thailand and, as they tried to cross the river into the country, their boat nearly sank from the weight of everyone crowded onboard. Once in the refugee camp, her mother did chores before sunrise into the evening. Eventually they resettled in Hawaii, where Christine’s mom was bullied, and they were so poor that each family member had only one outfit.
The trauma Christine’s parents faced as Hmong refugees defined them as parents. Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, Christine’s physical needs were met, but she was always pushed to do better. Her older sister was petite, soft spoken, and valedictorian of her high school class, and on a path to become a doctor. Christine was larger built, full of energy, and into music, art, and community service.
Jonat Gonzalez, age 26, has big goals for himself and his daughter. He wants to earn his high school equivalency diploma, secure a good paying job, and provide the best life he can for Adelyn, age 3. He wants his daughter to grow up healthy and do well in school.
These are goals Jonat has set over the past year, since he received a package in the mail that told him he was a father and that his daughter was going into foster care. While working to gain full custody of Adelyn and establish his life with her, he’s found support from friends and Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) based in Marshalltown.
“It wasn’t hard to step into this role,” Jonat says. “The hardest part was finding the support to do it.”
Sheila Paul with MICA’s 2-Gen program, aimed at supporting parents and children at the same time on their path to financial stability, meets weekly with Jonat at his Montezuma rental home to talk about steps he can take to achieve his goals. Family Connections also visits every other week to work with Adelyn on developmental activities and with Jonat for how he can help his daughter with challenging behaviors, including occasional outburst at others and clinginess to him.
“Jonat is very open to us coming into his home and asking about resources and what areas he would like to continue to be supported in and he’s very goal oriented,” says Nikki Harter, who supervises the 2-Gen program at MICA and who initially worked with Jonat. "We talk together about how he is going to reach his goals and breaking that down step-by-step. He’s focused on what he wants for him and his daughter.”
Professionals who protect and support individuals experiencing violence at home have raised concerns that this period of stress and isolation could cause a spike in domestic abuse. Without connections to teachers, pediatricians or other community members who provide support or report abuse, children are especially vulnerable in these situations.
According to Tess Cody, executive director of ACCESS (Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support) that provides services in five Iowa counties, calls for support related to domestic violence and child abuse have been on the rise nationally and an increase is anticipated locally as the need for social distancing continues. In today’s pandemic, people might especially be weighing the health risks of seeking help versus managing through their current situations at home.
She offers these ways for the community to respond:
The COVID-19 pandemic creates a significant risk to our health. As our lives are transformed in response, we also face another threat: high levels of stress from fear, uncertainty, loneliness, and desperation.
For those already struggling before the crisis or now facing job loss, a lack of resources, or no help at home, this time can be especially overwhelming and lead to challenges within the home. Many communities are already seeing signs of increased violence, mental health concerns, and substance use.
We know from The ACE Study science that adversity can have a major long-term impact on our future health and well-being, but we also know that positive experiences can counteract these outcomes.
Now, more than ever before, we need to be creative in how we respond.
We can do our part to reinforce families’ foundations in the wake of this storm and create the building blocks for children’s healthy development and well-being. Strategies must focus on helping caregivers alleviate their heavy load of stress and to foster the safe, nurturing environments children need to thrive.
Here’s how we can work to address stress at all levels during this pandemic:
Around any table discussing children and family issues in Ottumwa, Pat McReynolds and Cheryll Jones are likely present, leading or participating, and often grounding the conversation in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research.
Hearing about The ACE Study from Dr. Robert Anda with the CDC a decade ago was the spark they and several stakeholders needed to unify their community around prevention and family support efforts. They especially connected with the idea that the challenges they saw with kids and families could stem from past traumas and that interventions needed to start early in a child’s life, with support for parents and children.
Since that spark, they have worked to spread knowledge about ACEs and related topics and build champions for change—all without a formal coalition. Knowledge about ACEs is now being infused into social service agencies, the education system, health care, the community college, and even city government.
“When we’re at the table, if you don’t know about ACEs, you’re going to learn it,” says Cheryll, a nurse practitioner with the University of Iowa’s Child Health Specialty Clinic.