Click photo to enlarge
Dr. Bruce Perry, national expert on the impact of childhood trauma, speaks to Contra Costa County early child development educators in Walnut Creek, Calif. on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

WALNUT CREEK -- Communities filled with children who have been abused, neglected or are victims of trauma can include high levels of crime and violence, poor student performance and mental health issues.

Contra Costa County has joined about 30 other communities throughout the world striving to become "trauma-informed" to better serve those children and families. In these areas, brain development researchers and nonprofit organizations are teaming up with child care providers, educators, parents and doctors -- and even business leaders, police and the criminal justice system -- to change the way traumatized children are diagnosed and treated.

The ultimate goal is that everyone who works with kids will understand how brains develop and have a better idea about which treatments work best for trauma-related mental and physical problems.

"The risk for heart disease is higher for those with high-risk childhoods than for those who smoke," said Dr. Bruce Perry, who works with a nonprofit organization that consults with communities about trauma. "And the achievement gap is not about the color of your skin. It's about the level of stress in your environment."

Perry gave a presentation this week to about 300 child care providers and others in the county who work with children ages 5 and younger focused on "the impact of childhood trauma on our community and what we can do about it."

Childhood trauma, he said, can occur in the womb from issues including a mother's substance abuse; as an infant or toddler due to disruptions in the parent-child interactions such as a mother's depression; or anytime in life due to adversity such as a traumatic event.

"What makes an event traumatic is the way you handle it," he said, adding that the same incident could affect different people in various ways. "But you can develop post-traumatic resilience."

Instead of seeing those who have experienced trauma as victims, Perry said it's important to help them build up resilience by giving them tiny doses of stress and monitoring them, then tailoring treatment to their individual needs. "Resilience is not a trait," he said. "You can wear down the resilience of people if you give them a pattern of unpredictable stress." Problem-solving skills, he said, shut down when people feel threatened. Those who fear for their safety feel the urge to fight or flee.

Before a child is ready to learn or to be social, he or she needs to feel safe and to form positive relationships, he added.

"Programs don't change people, people change people," he said. "I would bet that at least 50 percent of kids are in the juvenile justice system because they ended up in environments where we tried to contain them and restrain them."

It's unrealistic to expect teens with delayed cognitive and emotional brain development to function like their peers, he said. The key to helping traumatized children develop in a healthy way is by assisting them to regulate their own comfort levels, relating to them where they are in their development, and then reasoning with them at their level, he said.

Trauma-informed communities, Perry said, should also focus on housing and other urban planning issues that determine residents' environments.

Carol Carillo, executive director of the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Contra Costa County, was encouraged by Perry's presentation.

"In our community, I think mental health is a very traditional model that isn't necessarily embracing some of these approaches," she said. "I'm very hopeful that this will bring about changes in programs and services."

MORE INFORMATION
To find out more about Contra Costa County's efforts to become a trauma-informed community, go to www.familiesthrive.org.
Details about Dr. Bruce Perry's brain development research and work with communities is available at http://childtrauma.org. To see a video of Perry talking about his work, go to www.contracostatimes.com/education.