By Joel Edouard, MSW Candidate
Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are defined as multiple risks factors such as child abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse and maternal depression experienced prior to an individual turning eighteen years old. The trauma of physical abuse is one ACE which commonly leads to substance abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), childhood physical abuse is defined as “any non-accidental physical injury to the child and can include striking, kicking, burning or biting the child, or any action that results in a physical impairment of the child.”
Researchers found that “adolescents with a history of multiple risk factors are more likely to initiate drinking alcohol at a younger age and are more likely to use alcohol as a means of coping with stress than for social reasons” (Shonkoff, Garner, Siegel, et al., 2012). This trauma may also occur in an intergenerational cycle where an individual was abused then later becomes an adult, and is unable to provide their child with a supportive social network that can protect them from the effects of the toxic stress. Toxic stress is a dangerous stress response that “can result from strong, frequent or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship” (Shonkoff, Garner, Siegel, et al., 2012).
Trauma and stress are experienced by all groups of people, but due to the legacy of slavery, African Americans are more vulnerable to the intergenerational impact of ACE. The involuntary migration forced African Americans to experience harsh, traumatic events such as witnessing violence, being raped, abused, hung and tortured while being forced to work and receive little to no rewards. After slavery was abolished, African Americans were dehumanized as they experienced legal discrimination and segregation. All of this occurred without receiving any treatment after being released from slavery. “With what is known about trauma, it is probable that significant numbers of African slaves experienced a sufficient amount of trauma to warrant a diagnosis of PTSD” (DeGruy, 2017). Dr. Joy DeGruy argued that the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stems from an individual directly experiencing, witnessing, or learning that a close friend or relative experienced at least one traumatic event. African slaves were repeatedly exposed to stressors in their lifetime of slavery.
African Americans today are still affected by this trauma because “hundreds of years of protracted slavery guaranteed the prosperity and privilege of the South’s white progeny while correspondingly relegating its black progeny to a legacy of debt and suffering” (DeGruy, 2017). DeGruy defined Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome as a “multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression and absence of opportunity to access the benefits available in the society” (2017). This inability to access the benefits of society still occurs in different ways. Access to quality benefits is also examined often today because many African Americans still live in communities that do not have quality grocery stores, healthcare, educational or social services.
This lack of access to quality benefits is easily seen today in educational disparities between African American and European American children. In Wisconsin, there is a concern about education disparities between urban and rural school districts.
Wisconsin has the largest gap in African American and European American school graduation rates. White students in Wisconsin had the third highest graduation rates (92.7%) in the nation during the 2015-16 school year, while their African American counterparts had the second lowest rate (64.2%) in the country. Wisconsin classrooms have fewer teachers, resulting in more crowded classrooms and less individual attention for students (Cornelius, 2017). This affects students, families, teachers and the community.
The implications of not addressing these problems can result in higher crime rates, unemployment, addiction to drugs, alcohol, child abuse, neglect, funding for schools, and academic achievement (Wang, 1997). Some other possible concerns are behavioral issues, school truancy, and suspension (Fergusson, 2004). When toxic stress occurs, it can lead to permanent changes in the functioning behavioral and physiological responses to stress that precipitate higher levels of stress-related chronic disease (Gershoff, 2016).
Joel Edouard is in his final semester of graduate school working on his Master’s in Social Work at UW-Milwaukee. He is a Mary Ellen Strong Foundation Scholar with plans to obtain his clinical licensure after graduation and continue to work with young people in the Black community.
Cornelius, T. (2017). Rising tide of poverty adds to challenges it Milwaukee schools. Retrieved from http://www.milwaukeeindependent.com/syndicated/rising-tide-poverty-adds-challenges-milwaukee-schools/
DeGruy, J.A. (2017). Post traumatic slave syndrome: America’s legacy of enduring injury and healing. Joy DeGruy Publications Inc.
Fergusson, D., Swain-Campbell, N., & Horwood, J. (2004). How does childhood economic disadvantage lead to crime? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 45(5), 956–966.
Gershoff, E. T. (2016). Should parents’ physical punishment of children be considered a source of toxic stress that affects brain development? Family Relations, 65(1), 151-162.
Health and Human Services (2016). Definitions of abuse and neglect. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/define.pdf
Shonkoff, J.P., Garner, A.S., Siegel, B.S., Dobbins, M.I., Earls, M.F., McGuinn, L., Pascoe, J., and Wood, D.L. (2011). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129, 232-246.
Wang, M. C. (1997). Next steps in inner-city education: Focusing on resilience development and learning success. Education and Urban Society, 29(3), 255–276.