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Professor provides HEARTS to those suffering from trauma

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By Russell Oliver: 11/10/15


The University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare is collaborating with the newly formed HEARTS (Healthy Environments And Relationships That Support) Initiative to increase research and create programs to aid people who have experienced early childhood trauma, frequently referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).

“We want to turn this into a social movement, engaging all community members and reaching policy-makers statewide,” Heather Larkin, an associate professor at UAlbany, said.

Studies show a strong link between ACEs and developing financial and social problems later in life. Traumatic childhood experiences can put stress on a developing brain, thus causing behavioral troubles, learning disabilities, and poor health. ACE and its after effects have become a huge concern in New York state.

HEARTS agencies researched and collected data on ACE from schools in the Capital Region. LaSalle School discovered that 40.7 percent of its students are suffering from ACE. St. Anne Institute had many students suffering from ACE in a study among 125 girls in their residential treatment facility. They found that 65 percent have experienced physical abuse, 70 percent have experienced sexual abuse and 96 percent reported a family member who abused drugs or alcohol.

An outpatient substance abuse service named Senior Hope scored those 50 and older on their ACE. Fifty-four percent of them were suffering from ACE-related problems in their lives, with higher percentages for females. Findings have also uncovered the impact of ACE on the homeless adult community in Albany, with over half of those surveyed suffering from their ACE. These statistics show that the number of people suffering from ACE has increased in Albany and New York state.

Larkin has been a pioneer in research on ACE in this area. She has been broadening ACE research into programs, practices, and policies. The ACE Study, conducted by Larkin, was one of the largest investigations ever performed to notice connections between childhood mistreatment and later life problems. She plans to expand her research into disadvantaged groups and to emphasize social workers’ ACE response within these groups to advocate community resilience.

According to Larkin, agencies around the Capital Region are improving their services for those who are in need the most: people with high ACE scores and numerous associated health and social issues. These agencies ask “what’s happened to you” instead of “what’s wrong with you.” They focus on being compassionate and addressing people’s strengths to influence improvement.

“We now see how pervasive ACEs are in society and how we can work together to create a culture of health that reduces the high human, social, and economic costs associated with ACEs,” she said.

Larkin said the HEARTS Initiative was created based on public interest on the matter. The original ACE study authors held presentations at the university starting in 2007, which were widely attended. Many attendees noted that the ACE characteristics mentioned in the presentations were noticeable in the community. For this reason Larkin started holding ACE Think Tank and Action team meetings.

“These quarterly events brought together community members and providers interested in translating the ACE research into policies, programs, practices, and community supports,” Larkin said.

The Think Tank and Action meetings soon developed into the HEARTS Initiative. Many organizations and schools from the Capital Region are part of the HEARTS Initiative, including the Center for Disability Services, the Community Hospice, Prevent Child Abuse NY, and St. Catherine’s Center for Children. UAlbany acts as the “backbone” of this alliance, according to Larkin.

UAlbany has recently been gifted a $300,000 grant to expand research and services at the HEARTS Initiative, according to a press release. Larkin believes that this grant will help raise social awareness on this problem.

“This award significantly recognizes the great work being done by Dr. Larkin and her team,” Darrell P. Wheeler, the dean of the School of Social Welfare, said in the press release.

The HEARTS Initiative plans to utilize this grant by focusing on the Capital Region’s highest scoring ACE population, including people with disabilities, children in minority groups, and the homeless.

“We also want to do more outreach to schools and healthcare,” Larkin said. “We want a comprehensive approach where we are all working together to create a culture of health.”

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