The New Jersey Department of Children and Families is a child and family-serving agency with a mission to keep all New Jersey residents safe, healthy, and connected. 

In early February of this year, we helped to launch a vital initiative that addresses Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. Although the concept of ACEs is not new, our state’s effort to spearhead a comprehensive and coordinated approach to prevent, mitigate and eliminate them puts New Jersey at the national forefront. 

School board members, school administrators and everyone in the education community are among the “first responders” that can be true change-agents in improving outcomes for children. We know that the NJEA is working closely with New Jersey’s new executive director of the Office of Resilience to train educators in ACEs and in many districts, work is already underway.

The term ACEs was coined during a landmark study conducted from 1995 to 1997 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente.  More than 17,000 HMO members in Southern California were given physical exams and asked to complete confidential surveys regarding childhood experiences and current health and well-being metrics.  Researchers found a strong correlation between adversity and trauma in childhood, and poor outcomes in adulthood.

There are typically ten ACEs referenced in existing research, broken out into three separate categories: abuse (physical, emotional, sexual); neglect (physical, emotional); and household dysfunction (mental illness, incarcerated relative, domestic violence, substance abuse, divorce). Ongoing systemic racism and social isolation related to COVID-19 are relatively newer additions.

Among the initial study’s findings: individuals who experienced four or more defined episodes of adversity in childhood were more likely to experience chronic health problems, mental health challenges, job and financial instability, chronic absenteeism, social deficiencies, substance use disorders and more.

In follow-up research, the CDC determined that about 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states had experienced at least one type of ACE, and 1 in 6 adults had experienced four or more ACEs. In a report released by the NJ ACE Funders Collaborative, it is estimated that 40% of children in New Jersey have experienced at least one ACE, and 18% experienced multiple ACEs. The CDC estimates that the “economic and social costs to families, communities, and society totals hundreds of billions of dollars each year” and notes that successfully preventing ACEs could have an impact on a number of other public health challenges, including incidence of heart disease (1.9 million) and cases of depression (21 million).

The good news is that ACEs can be prevented, and the negative impacts of ACEs on an individual’s future can be disrupted. For cases in which individuals demonstrate increased resilience to the impact of ACEs, it is usually the presence of healthy, safe, and nurturing relationships in childhood — even with just one caring adult — that can make the difference.

The New Jersey ACEs Action Plan is the result of years of work by a unique public-private partnership — the NJ ACEs Collaborative — consisting of the Burke Foundation, The Nicholson Foundation, the Turrell Fund and the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. With support from the Center for Health Care Strategies, the NJ ACEs Collaborative developed a blueprint for expanding public awareness on ACEs, engaging affected communities and intersecting stakeholders (health care, housing, law enforcement, education) to lead and contribute to the ACE’s work, coordinating existing ACEs initiatives within state, county, and local government under the Office of Resilience umbrella and moving New Jersey towards becoming a trauma-informed, healing-centered state.

School board members, school administrators and educators can take action by becoming a member of the NJ Resiliency Coalition and utilizing its resources.  There are subgroups such as “ACEs in Education” and/or “ACEs in Early Childhood” and Parent groups.

We look forward to the participation of school board members and all educators in this journey to heal children, families, neighborhoods and communities from ACEs.

Christine Norbut Beyer, MSW, is commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.