In 2016 the US Embassy and Jamaica’s Child Development Agency (CDA) hosted a series of presentations on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) which were delivered by Dr Nadine Burke–Harris, a leading figure in the global ACEs movement. Despite this promising start and the efforts of a few Jamaican writers and researchers, Jamaica is still in the early stages of exploring how the conceptual framework of ACEs could help us understand and address the links between child abuse and many of our development challenges.
Causes and Effects of Aces
ACEs refer to traumatic experiences that many children are exposed to, including poverty, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, community violence and classism. Unchecked exposure to ACEs often causes radical molecular and genetic defects in victims, including alterations in the structure of their brain and may continue to have negative effects into adulthood. In addition to being predictive for poor health outcomes such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity, ACEs can be gateways to suicide ideation, chronic depression, drug addiction, violence and other harmful behaviours.
One of the most significant achievements of ACEs science is our growing knowledge of the link between distinct ACEs/ACEs scores and specific illnesses/behaviours. A person’s ACE score is a tally of his/her exposure to each adversity. People with a score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and 7 times more likely to be alcoholic. Four or more ACEs double the risk for stroke and heart disease. From zero ACEs to 6 there is about 5,000 per cent increased likelihood of suicide attempts. Chronically depressed individuals experience an average loss of 28 years of quality life, twice the burden of most chronic health conditions, and those with 6 or more ACEs die nearly 20 years earlier on average.
Aces in Jamaica
According to UNICEF, eight out of every 10 Jamaican children are subjected to violent discipline at some point. From 2007 to 2015, over 70, 000 reports of child maltreatment were made to the National Children’s Registry (NCR), and during this time more than 750 children were killed. Despite these high numbers, only 1 in 10 adults report child abuse. Violence, particularly violence against children, is espoused by many Jamaicans, including people in important positions of leadership. It should come as no surprise then that annually thousands of children appear before the courts as perpetrators of various crimes, including murder, or that Jamaica has had 20,000 homicides in the past 15 years. Research shows that victims of abuse, particularly boys, are 9 times more likely to engage in criminal behaviour than their non–abused peers.
Time for a New Narrative
Our discourses on child abuse usually focus on familial challenges, but these represent only a small fraction of this issue. A huge percentage of ACEs in Jamaica result from community–level dysfunctions, including education and healthcare disparities, classism, political repression, peer victimisation and institutionalised poverty. The cycles of economic deprivation that many Jamaicans endure fuel ACEs across generations, leaving strong cumulative imprints on our biology. Children in poverty are forced to internalise numerous stressors, leading to overextension of and eventual damage to their psychological regulatory system. Many of these children become unhealthy and unemployable adults who often hold cynical views of the world. Such views, when manifested in victims’ engagement with socioeconomic affairs, can pose profound challenges to constructive governance.
Given the implications of ACEs for all facets of human development and the epidemic levels of ACEs in Jamaica, it is imperative that we understand the relationship of ACEs to our individual prospects and national development goals. The growing number of abuse cases and the existential challenges that most Jamaicans are facing show that discussions on ACEs are urgently needed. And while it is sometimes necessary to hold abusers accountable—particularly those who wield considerable power—efforts to curb child maltreatment also need to find more transformative ways of engaging with abusers, who are in many instances victims themselves. ACE science provides strong counterarguments to retributive justice practices which often amplify violence and trauma rather than produce social healing.
As Dr Burke–Harris said in a recent interview in the Washington Post, ‘the science of [ACEs] represents incredible hope’ and has provided revolutionary answers to many complex questions regarding what it takes for individuals and societies to achieve their full potential. We have a far way to go but Jamaica’s ACEs movement can benefit greatly from work that has already been done by organisations such as America’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr Burke–Harris’ Centre for Youth Wellness, the World Health Organisation, and ACEs Connection. These organisations’ ACE research/resources are available online to anyone who wishes to access them.