Lead Author of New CDC Report Cites Business, Policy Solutions to Prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences, Improve Americans’ Health

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Chicago—Today, Dr. Melissa Merrick, president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America (PCA America) calls on business leaders and policymakers to enact pragmatic strategies that prevent adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Merrick is the lead author of a new report on ACEs, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she served previously as a subject matter expert for almost nine years.

“Exposure to ACEs is one of the biggest public health crises we confront in this country—at least five of the top 10 leading causes of death in adults are associated with ACEs, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes,” explained Merrick. “We must tackle the enormity of this problem with holistic, cross-sector approaches that actively engage the business community and legislators at the local, state and national levels, in partnership with the medical and human services fields, to prevent the occurrence of ACEs.”

ACEs are defined as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0–17 years) such as experiencing violence, abuse or neglect; witnessing violence in the home and having a family member attempt or die by suicide. Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability and bonding such as growing up in a household with substance misuse, mental health problems or instability due to parental separation or incarceration of a parent, sibling or other member of the household.

Part of CDC’s Vital Signs series, the report contains the most comprehensive estimates to date on the widespread impact of ACEs and recommendations for preventing them to potentially improve the health of Americans. The report’s authors analyzed data from 25 states that included ACEs questions in CDC’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System from 2015 to 2017. Responses from more than 144,000 adults led authors to conclude:

  • ACEs are common—nearly 61% of study respondents experienced at least one type of ACEs, and one in six reported four or more ACEs.
  • ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental health issues, substance misuse and reduced educational and occupational achievement.
  • Preventing ACEs has the potential to reduce leading causes of death such as respiratory disease, cancer and suicide and have a positive impact on health, education and employment levels.

“A key takeaway from the report is that ACEs are preventable,” stated Merrick. “But to do so we need to enlist every available partner, including those in the business and public policy sectors, which makes sense because preventing ACEs affords wide-ranging social and economic benefits, in addition to the well-documented health benefits.”

For example, the report cites the potential to reduce cases of depression by 44%, which has significant financial implications for businesses. According to data from Aetna Behavioral Health, the amount of money companies spend on the mental health of their employees has been rising rapidly—annual costs have increased twice as fast as all other medical expenses in recent years. The benefits consulting firm Willis Towers Watson reports that people suffering from depression submit an average of $14,967 per year in claims, compared with $5,929 a year for the total population.

Merrick and the report’s co-authors recommend several practical solutions for creating the conditions for safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments for all children, families and communities, which are fundamental to preventing ACEs. Among these solutions is strengthening economic supports for families, such as family-friendly work policies, like paid leave and flexible work schedules, and earned income tax credits.

“Companies like Patagonia, which provides high-quality on-site child care, and Wegman’s Food Markets, which offers paid leave to care for a sick child or relative, are setting an example for companies across the country on adopting family-friendly policies in the workplace. These policies not only contribute to preventing ACEs but also reduce employee absenteeism and tardiness and increase employee satisfaction, productivity, commitment to the company, recruitment and retention and overall performance and profitability,” continued Merrick. “It’s a win-win scenario.”

In May 2019, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed Executive Order Number 95, extending paid parental leave to state employees in cabinet agencies, an effort that Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, part of PCA America’s nationwide chapter network, played an instrumental role in accomplishing. This executive order catalyzed the University of North Carolina Public University System and other non-state agencies to employ paid leave as well. In total, more than 92,000 North Carolina families now have parental leave to welcome a new child through birth, adoption or fostering.

“This is a phenomenal example of how we can work in partnership with policy makers and employers to achieve positive outcomes for children, families and entire communities,” said Sharon Hirsch, president & CEO of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina.

Another tool for preventing ACEs is the earned income tax credit (EITC). The CDC has identified EITCs as one of 14 key evidence-based health interventions that can improve health in five years or less at a low or neutral cost. EITCs can improve public health by helping to lift people out of poverty; data show EITCs lifted 5.7 million people out of poverty in 2017, including about 3 million children. EITC has kept more children living above the poverty line than any other tax credit program. Simultaneously, EITCs can pump new money into the economy, positively affecting state budgets and consumer spending.

“By increasing income for working families, EITCs can reduce parental stress and depression, which are two key risk factors for child abuse and neglect,” added Merrick. “And when kids are healthy and free from violence, they are more likely to become healthy and productive adults—because childhood lasts a lifetime.”

About Prevent Child Abuse America

Prevent Child Abuse America is a leading champion for all children in the United States. Founded in 1972, we are the nation’s oldest and largest organization dedicated to the primary prevention of child abuse and neglect, working to actively prevent all forms of child abuse and neglect before they occur and helping children grow up to be productive, contributing members of their communities and society. Our success is founded on a nationwide network of state chapters and nearly 600 Healthy Families America home visiting sites, which directly provide parents and caregivers a wide variety of services and resources. Our comprehensive approach is informed by science—we translate and disseminate innovative research to promote proven solutions that our vast network then puts into action. And we raise public awareness and advocate for family friendly policies at the national, state, and local levels to support transformative programs and promote the conditions and contexts that help children, families, and communities across the country thrive.

Charles Mutscheller
Chief Communications Officer

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