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Childhood Inequities, Neglect, Abuse Hidden in Pandemic 

Virginia Watahomigie is worried about our families. As the executive director for the Coconino Coalition for Children and Youth (CCC&Y), she knows that isolation, depression and anxiety – all conditions mental health experts say have been made worse by the pandemic – are increasingly having a negative effect on children in Arizona, particularly in rural areas where resources are less available than in larger cities and distances to travel for support are far greater.

Watahomigie also is very much aware that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) increase the chances for children to grow up with addiction and substance abuse problems, chronic health and mental health issues and other negative outcomes later in life, including violence and criminal behavior. “It is clear that preventing childhood trauma is a very important step,” she said, “but there is much we can do as a community to build protective factors and promote resilience.”

Community-involved business professionals and educators experience first-hand how not every child is raised in a supportive family or treated equally at school. But kindness, encouragement and involvement from adults in a child’s life can have a ripple effect that impacts the individual in a positive way and also benefits the greater community and future workforce.

“It’s easy to picture two kids with the same background, who go on two different trajectories throughout their lives,” said Watahomigie. “For example, let’s say Timmy suffered abuse at home. There were strangers in and out of the house, a lack of food and trauma in his family’s history. Neighbors are uncomfortable around him because his manners seem off and his clothes are dirty. He goes to school, is constantly being punished and gets suspended. Compare that to Sam’s world, where he is treated with kindness, involved in afterschool activities, encouraged as an athlete, welcomed into homes for a meal and invited to build relationships with other kids. It’s easy to see how Sam is set up to develop a sense of self, belonging and purpose.”

Communities make a difference, she says. “Those who don’t understand trauma can cause further trauma.”

Former Flagstaff Unified School District Board member and teacher Julianne Hartzell says COVID-19 has made it more difficult for community members to see signs of childhood trauma, neglect and abuse, as children are more isolated than ever before, sheltering in place and learning from home. She says as many as half the children in the public school system have had Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

“The education system is now a social service system,” said Hartzell. “We don’t just educate the child anymore, we provide food, counseling and support services for the family.”

Watahomigie notes that the pandemic is demonstrating yet more unevenness of impact. Families who were already dealing with traumatic histories and poverty experiences have even fewer resources during times of national and global crisis.

Hartzell, who has a master’s degree in guidance counseling, is an advocate for public education and a volunteer for CCC&Y, says schools aren’t treated equally and rural communities receive fewer resources. “Funding for schools is based on student population,” she said. “And, people in Phoenix don’t understand the distances we have to travel in smaller communities for education, medical services and activities. It’s challenging to reach people in rural communities where there may not be internet or phone service and difficult to explain these inequities to legislators when families don’t even have running water.”

Attorney and newly elected District 1 Coconino County Supervisor Patrice Horstman has long been involved in the welfare of Arizona’s young people. She’s been a legal counselor to school districts across the state for more than 40 years and works with the Arizona Cactus-Pine Girl Scouts to help build their courage, confidence and character. She also coaches them on entrepreneurial skills to sell cookies.

As a member of CCC&Y, she knows childhood trauma is repeated as children have the same experiences that their parents lived through. But, she says, education and schools can help reduce the effects of childhood trauma and be a point of healing and community for these kids.

“We all see the effects of childhood trauma,” said Horstman. “It’s a huge cost to our communities when you consider chronic health and mental health problems, addiction and substance abuse. We see a higher percentage of poverty and teenage suicides in Coconino County than the national average. Poverty, racism, unaddressed Adverse Childhood Experiences and marginalized populations all add to traumas we see here.”

In addition, with COVID-19, she says we’ve created a two-tiered education system, as many households don’t have the tools or capacity to teach children at home. “With childhood adversity, young people often end up dropping out of school earlier and losing educational, occupational and career opportunities, which also impacts the health and resiliency of the community.”

But research shows resilient communities can counter those ACEs. A decades-long study that started in 1955 on Kauai, Hawaii, identified protective factors that help buffer against this adversity and may have more of a long-term impact than any one risk factor. Researchers identified pathways for how resiliency is developed and offered three major categories that make a difference in children’s lives: 1. Internal disposition factors such as intelligence and temperament; 2. Connections with family and other caring adults; and, 3. External groups or systems that reward competence and provide a sense of coherence. According to the study, all three lead to positive responses from those around the child.

“Self-healing communities are important for all of us,” said Horstman. “Being there and being that caring neighbor or adult, promoting equity and equality in the community, possessing a cultural awareness and acceptance – all of these play a role in developing a child’s self-worth and building a resilient, caring and healing community.”

Hartzell asks the question: “Who is going to take care of you when you get older? If we don’t do things for these kids now, who’s going to be your plumber or nurse? We want today’s young people to grow up to be healthy adults and want to do whatever their dream may be.”

She encourages community members to take at least one positive step. She points to the CCC&Y website for resources and encourages community members to donate, which enables the non-profit organization to bring trauma awareness training to more schools. She also suggests, “When you see children, smile. Compliment them. Ask how they’re doing. It’s simple. Wouldn’t you like someone to smile at you and say, ‘Hey, you’re doing a great job!’”

Watahomigie imagines future communities in which the effects of childhood trauma are clearly understood, the impact of inequitable experience is acknowledged and people are aligned toward creating access to assets and protective factors that support positive life outcomes.

CCC&Y is offering a free live training to the public at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27. “This training will explore the roadmap to creating change at the community and system level by using the findings of both leadership research and today’s thought leaders,” she said.

To register or learn more, visit coconinokids.org. Webinars can be found under the prevention tab. FBN

By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

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