Real-World Solutions to Adverse Childhood Experiences

Autumn Mason Photo Sarah Whiting

Last year, Minnesota Women’s Press shared Autumn Mason’s story about the trauma she endured giving birth while incarcerated, and then being separated from her child.

Now a doula and program facilitator with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, Mason provides prenatal and parenting support to incarcerated people.

Following separation shortly after birth, her newborn struggled with sufficient nutrition and had severe digestive issues. “If my daughter would have been able to have access to her milk, I am very confident that she would not have had any of those issues,” explains Mason.

“[Parent-child] separation runs counter to everything we know about the human species and the way that babies need to be supported and nurtured,” says Rebecca Shlafer, research director for the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. Not having a primary attachment figure — whether a parent’s absence is due to incarceration, deployment, or death — prevents an infant’s brain from developing as it should and has long- term consequences for health and well-being, she says.

Experts include the absence of an attachment figure in adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Defined in a seminal 1998 CDC-Kaiser study, the ACEs encompass a range of experiences before the age of 18 that are linked to increased risk of chronic health problems in adulthood such as alcoholism, heart disease, and diabetes. More than half of all Minnesotans have had one or more ACEs, according to the most recent Minnesota Department of Health study.

The Science

Sandy Klein-Mirviss is director of developmental therapy services at the Family Partnership, a Twin Cities nonprofit offering mental health services and therapeutic preschools.

In 2021, the Family Partnership was recognized by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits for its brain science– informed strategies, noting that there is a “20-year lag between discoveries in research and practical translation into human services.”

In stressful situations, our bodies release the hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, says John Till, senior vice president of strategy and innovation at the Family Partnership. With persistent stress, those hormones rewire body systems to have less well-regulated stress responses, such as seeing threats that might not exist. This continued state of emergency “causes a lot of wear and tear on the organ systems” that ultimately leads to issues with mental and physical health.

“Adverse childhood experiences that happen between ages 0–5 have the most profound impact,” Till says.

Impact and growth happen through adolescence and young adulthood, but at a slower rate. The Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child finds that unmitigated toxic stress becomes “built into the body by processes that shape the architecture of the developing brain.”

The question is, says Klein-Mirviss, “how do we get those neural connections and all those synapses firing to their optimal capability in order to overcome the toxic stress?”

At the Family Partnership, direct treatment via outpatient clinics and therapeutic models in preschools is one solution. Staff teach individuals to recognize when they are under- or over-stimulated, and then experiment with breathing exercises, rhythmical movement, and sensory experiences. Planning, memory, and stress management skills enable children to succeed in school, and to eventually get a job and become successful parents if they choose.

A second approach involves a two-generational process. “Caregivers have the capability to buffer kids against toxic stress,” says Till. The goal is to educate and empower caregivers, many of whom might have experienced ACEs themselves, to better mitigate the impact on youth.

“We are there to try to work with the whole family whenever possible,” says Till, “because that is how you get to solutions that are durable.”