South Dakota Shares The Link Between Childhood Trauma And Serious Adult Health Issues

Southeast CASA Executive Director Sherri Rogers-Conti is ready to share her knowledge with community groups and organizations about how childhood trauma affects adults in later life.

South Dakota is taking the lead on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) presentations around the state.

Through a collaboration between the Children’s Home Society of South Dakota and the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment at the University of South Dakota, the South Dakota ACEs & Resiliency Program is bringing ace training to professionals in the state.

The training aims to give participants the tools necessary to bring ACE training to their communities.

Southeast CASA Executive Director Sherri Rogers-Conti completed the training and is now hoping to spread the word about ACEs and resiliency to groups in Yankton.

"The first time I heard about ACEs was at least two years ago, maybe three, when I just happened to see an article published on ACEs and explored it on my own," she said.

ACEs came to the attention of the medical community in the 1980s when some doctors started noticing a correlation between their patients’ medical history and experiencing different traumas as children.

"One of the doctors in the ACEs study, Vincent Felitti, head of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego at the time, was focusing on patients with obesity and what their background was," Rogers-Conti said. "The other, Robert Anda from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was focusing on smoking (cessation) and how hard it was to quit for (certain) people, and was noticing a high level of childhood trauma."

The doctors, who already had access to the subjects’ health histories, decided to study the possible correlation scientifically to childhood trauma in what became the ACE Study. Using a sample group of 17,000 subjects, the doctors screened each one for ACEs.

"What was interesting about this was that the majority of their patients were highly educated, upper-middle class, mainly white people," Rogers-Conti said. "(Researchers) were finding that the more adverse experiences (subjects) had as children, the more difficulty they were having as adults with medical issues and also social issues, such as addictions or unemployment, but mostly health issues: heart disease, lung problems and obesity."

Researchers keyed into the top 10 issues in childhood that they believed resulted in negative health outcomes as adults and developed a 10-question ACE test about specific types of trauma that lists a score at the end.

"For example, ‘Have you experienced physical abuse in your life?’ If so, you mark ‘yes,’ — even if it’s only one time — if you had chronic physical abuse you mark ‘yes,’" Rogers-Conti said, noting that the test does not differentiate between one-time trauma and chronic trauma.

Types of adverse experiences explored on the questionnaire include: physical and emotional neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse and smoking in the home.

"Then there were things like domestic violence in the home (and) absence of a parent due to divorce, abandonment or death," Rogers-Conti said "Incarceration of a parent was a separate question, and there was also a question about mental illness in the home."

For every "yes" answer, the person taking the text gets a point, with scores ranging from zero to 10.

"They found that a third of the people had zero, but almost everybody that had one, typically had another one or two or three, so it tended to jump up," Rogers-Conti said. "There were people that had one (point), but once you’ve had one averse experience, you were very likely to have had a second or third, they found."

Researchers found a correlation between a high ACE score and serious illnesses later in life.

"So then, (researchers) could really say, if you look at the people who have heart disease and what their histories are according to our scale, the higher the score, the higher the incidence of heart disease, liver disease or depression, whatever they were measuring," she said.

Scientists have come to believe that ACEs cause the body to release so much stress hormone that it rewires your brain. There are studies now on the brain and these experiences, and how they change your brain structure, she said.

"When you experience a trauma as a child, it actually changes the synapses in your brain and creates new pathways. The more often you have a trauma, the more often these stress hormones are released, creating these changes in your brain," Rogers-Conti said. "There’s a catch phrase for ACEs, ‘The body remembers the trauma.’"

These changes in the developing brains of children can lead to difficulty in learning, behaviors and coping, she said.

There are also mitigating factors, assessed in a resiliency questionnaire, balancing positive factors that seem to help children cope better with trauma, like a supportive family member that champions and values the child.

"At CASA, we are trying to make sure that children don’t return to a traumatic environment, an unsafe environment, because the trauma has already happened before we get involved." Rogers-Conti said. "It’s our role to understand what’s happening with the family so that if a judge returns the children to the parents, are they going to be safe. So, we really get to know the parents."

Eliminating as many traumas from a childhood as possible creates adults with good physical and mental health, but knowing about the ACEs study can also help people have compassion for those who suffered ACEs as children and may now be struggling in adulthood.


For more information on ACEs presentations, contact Rogers-Conti at Southeast CASA at or 605-760-4825.


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