ACEs: How the Deck was Dealt

The ace in a deck of playing cards is often seen as the highest card played, depending on which game you are playing. However, ACEs in adulthood do not necessarily make you the winner in the game of life.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are defined as childhood traumatic events that can affect child safety and well-being. Traumatic events may include child abuse and neglect, poverty, and parental challenges including parental substance use and abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness.

This month, the Central Iowa ACEs 360 Steering Committee released Beyond ACEs: Building Hope and Resiliency in Iowa. The newly-released report provides a refresh of the 2013 report with a more comprehensive analysis of the data.

In Iowa, 17,000 adults participated in the research. They were asked to complete a survey to identify their ACEs score. The higher the ACEs score, the greater the risk for experiencing negative health and behavioral outcomes in adulthood.

Below are some key findings from the report:

· Approximately 56% of Iowa adults report experiencing childhood trauma;

· More than 14% of adults reported experiencing four or more ACEs;

· The most common ACEs experienced by adults are emotional abuse (26.8%) and substance abuse in the home (26.1%);

· Those more likely to experience ACEs include younger adults, minorities, and adults without a high school education.

Adults identifying four or more ACEs had more challenges compared to the adults who reported zero ACEs. The adults with the greater ACEs scores were more likely to rate their health as “poor” or “fair,” more likely to rate their mental health as “not good,” and more likely to report limits in activities due to physical, emotional, or mental problems. Additionally, those with higher ACEs scores were more often engaged in risky behaviors such as binge drinking and smoking.

This research identifies the important role these experiences have on the developing brain. Ultimately, stress can disrupt the developing brain. One solution to mitigate the effects of these experiences is to make sure people have caring connections, which can improve brain function. In Iowa, a number of groups have formed Connections Matter to help educate the public on the importance of relationships and encourage involvement at a local level. The report further identifies roles individuals and businesses can play to address ACEs in your communities.

This week I noticed ACEs popping up in my media feeds. Most notable was the blog post, Yesterdays Matter Today, written by Des Moines Register reporter Daniel Finney. In the post he describes his own ACEs experiences and the impact they have had on his life and the decisions he has made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand that things that happen to us as children affect how we feel about ourselves and act as adults.

It was a long time ago, the thinking goes. Let it go.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way the brain works. It takes time to build new schema and the struggle goes on.”

In this election year, we should be talking to the candidates about ACEs affecting our kids and our communities. If you have the opportunity ask a candidates running for a local, state, or federal position how they will mitigate the effects of adverse childhood experiences on our kids.


Kelli Soyer, MSW, LMSW


Every Child Matters in Iowa

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