Preventing ACEs: Getting to the Root of Community Trauma

By Whitney Bunts and Kayla Tawa 

Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published “Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Leveraging the Best Available Evidence.” The CDC defines ACEs as “traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years) such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect.” The report explains the prevalence of ACEs and provides a number of strategies to prevent children from experiencing them. The CDC’s strategies align with much of CLASP’s advocacy work; however, making equitable gains in preventing ACEs requires intervening at the structural level to address systemic racism and oppression. 


More than 60 percent of adults in the United States have experienced at least one ACE, and over 15 percent experienced four or more. Children living in poverty are particularly likely to experience ACEs. In the United States, 16.2 percent of all children live in poverty, but that rate is nearly two time higher (29.5 percent) for Black children.  Data from 2017 show that Black children are disproportionately represented among children with ACEs, with over 6 in 10 Black children experiencing an ACE. 


The CDC’s strategies to prevent ACEs focus on changing norms, environment, and behaviors by strengthening economic supports for families; promoting social norms that protect against violence and adversity; and connecting youth to caring adults and activities. 


The Trump Administration has proposed and implemented policies contrary to these suggestions. Destructive policies like repealing the Affordable Care Act and imposing stricter regulations on accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will likely increase the prevalence of ACEs. And policies like rolling back criminal justice reform and separating immigrant families will exacerbate ACEs primarily in Black, Brown, and immigrant communities by creating new and compounding existing traumas. Therefore, we must address historical factors like generational poverty, racism, and classism to fully prevent ACEs. 


Systems of power like racism and classism exacerbate many of the challenges Black and Brown people experience. For example, because ACEs are more common among children living in poverty, we must acknowledge that the racial wealth gap contributes to the high prevalence of ACEs among Black children. In the United States, Black families on average have just 10 percent of the wealth  of white families. The racial wealth gap affects socioeconomic status, along with access to opportunities, educational attainment, and investment in communities. If we don’t address structural barriers like the racial wealth gap, we won’t make equitable gains in preventing ACEs.  


To prevent ACEs, we must support both the top-level policies recommended by the CDC and systems change strategies that intervene at the root level to dismantle systems of power. The root causes of generational poverty, structural racism, and historical disinvestment in communities of color produce ACEs. Therefore, to achieve equitable gains in preventing ACEs we must shift the power to those most impacted by violence and historical trauma, ensuring that the “people closest to the pain are closest to the power.”