The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Racism in Minnesota

Minnesota Rep. Ruth Richardson

“While we know we cannot undo over 400 years of systemic racism in a single committee, this committee is an important first step forward. We must recognize that the conversations are difficult because something is deeply wrong.”

— Minnesota Rep. Ruth Richardson (Mendota Heights)

The Minnesota House Select Committee on Racial Justice held its second remote hearing on Tuesday, September 29, 2020, co-chaired by Rep. Ruth Richardson and Rep. Rena Moran. The topic was Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and racism.

Richardson opened with the reminder that we are beyond asking a child “what’s wrong with you” and are replacing it with “what has happened to you?”

On the Zoom call was Dr. William Dietz, chair of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, who reviewed the ACEs checklist, which originally included 10 items, such as: violence in the home, violence in the community, sexual abuse, physical abuse, parent with a mental illness, incarcerated parent, divorce, alcoholism, neglect, and others. Structural racism has been added.

When four or more items happen in childhood, there is strong likelihood that the child will be impacted through adulthood. Childhood trauma contributes to major chronic physical and mental health issues.

Black and Indigenous children have ACE scores above four more often than white children do. That is because systems designed by white people fail to meet basic human needs of other communities, according to Dr. Wendy Ellis, director of the Center for Community Resilience at the Milken Institute in Washington D.C.

Lack of affordable housing; income disparities; and inadequate school funding, medical care, childcare, and policing all contribute to inequities.

Ellis drew the distinction between ‘equality,’ when everyone gets the same thing, and ‘equity,’ when everyone gets what they need. The needs of children and their families is not the same in every community.

Ellis shared her own personal story to illustrate that a high ACE score can be overcome. She has an ACE score of 8 out of 10. Her family of origin was violent and abusive. Yet she has achieved prominence in her field. Loving grandparents raised her in a neighborhood of people that looked like her. Many of her teachers looked like her. The police lived in the neighborhood and were seen as friends. They had access to good parks. The community invested in families and children.

Her experience led to development of the framework for the Building Community Resilience networks that have successfully led to systems and policy change focused on addressing long-standing economic, social, and health disparities by partnering in community with services, and political will.  

Linsey McMurrin, Director of Prevention Initiatives & Tribal Projects at Minnesota’s FamilyWise Services/Prevent Child Abuse America, also spoke of the importance of community. Indigenous people have been impacted by years of trauma and assault by a domineering culture. She says her work is guided by the questions “what are parents lacking” and “how can they receive a continuum of care?”

The community, rather than individual, approach has been highlighted by trauma-informed experts for many years as a pathway to greater safety and security. High concentrations of poverty, visibility of violence, and poor housing conditions can lead to cycles of domestic violence, parental neglect, and substance abuse.

Racial and economic disparities in education funding, criminal justice enforcement and incarceration, and discriminatory lending practices lead to inequitable environments and requires community effort to repair.

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