Launched two years ago, ACERT, or the Adverse Childhood Experiences Response Team, has experienced some amazing results. Several times each week, a member of the Manchester Police Department, a crisis service advocate from the Manchester YWCA and a community health worker from the Manchester Community Health Center (MCHC) head out to knock on doors of homes where children were exposed to trauma.
The plan, said program founding partner Lara Quiroga, MEd, director of strategic initiatives for children at the MCHC, is to provide information for adult caregivers about services for children.
“The highest number of calls are due to domestic incidents but we have also responded to overdoses, suicides or attempts, sexual assaults, pretty much any call where a child is exposed to trauma,” said Quiroga.
Studies have shown that children exposed to trauma have higher incidences of substance abuse and mental and physical health issues later in life.
“A child with six adverse childhood experiences has a 4,600% increased risk of using intravenous drugs later in life,” said Quiroga. “That is terrifying.”
Since it takes time for the effects of adverse childhood trauma to show up, the issue has not received enough attention thus far.
“There has always been a need,”” said Jessica Sugrue, M.S., another founding partner and CEO of Manchester YWCA. “We have seen that these children are the missing piece of the puzzle but we don’t see the direct impact right away. But with advances in research, we are now able to get the funding. It is really pay now or pay more later.”
In the summer of 2015, Quiroga’s team at Project Launch, an initiative of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) that promotes positive behavioral health for children through age eight, was contacted by the Manchester Police Department about setting up an outreach project to help children who experience violence and trauma each year in the city.
“Resources are available to help victims,” said Quiroga, “but there are not necessarily programs in place to help children who are exposed. In 2014, the more than 400 children exposed to domestic violence [in Manchester] got no advocacy.”
After looking at models of domestic abuse response teams, organizers decided to try a similar approach with children and ACERT was born.
Each team member has a role. The police officer handles safety and any legal issues that may arise in sharing of extra information. The crisis service advocate works with the adult victim to explain and provide information on services while the health worker will engage with the child to redirect focus away from the discussion among the adults.
“We are not there to provide treatment or to question a child about how they are feeling about the event,” said Quiroga. “The main goal is to get a release signed so that the agencies can contact them directly.”
As of August, the team had deployed 205 times, visiting 725 families and 1,100 children. Of those, 815 children from 440 families were referred to services. Because of privacy laws, it is not possible to track families to see how many actually receive treatment.
The program received additional funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance in October. Once the money is accepted by the Governor and Executive Council, it will be used to expand the program to train other first responders, to increase shifts for teams and to work with community agencies to ensure that additional services are available for the children.
“Sustainability is key,” Sugrue added. “We have three years to build the program up to scale but the goal is to create a sustainable model of practice.”
Catherine Robertson Souter is a freelance writer and social media agent based in New Hampshire. A contributor to New England Psychologist since its inception, she previously wrote for Massachusetts Psychologist among other media outlets.