Eighteen-year old Lawrence Nelson will likely end up costing Illinois taxpayers more than $2 million dollars.  Lawrence (not his real name) was recently released from the Cook County Jail after serving six months for illegal possession of a stolen weapon. This was his third time being locked up. The odds that Lawrence gets killed or spends his life in jail are significantly higher than the likelihood that he graduates from high school. 

Given what we know about the effects of childhood trauma, Lawrence’s path should come as no surprise. His mother, who dropped out of high school when she was pregnant with him, has struggled with substance abuse throughout his life, and his father is serving a lifetime sentence in prison. Both of his parents likely experienced significant childhood trauma of their own. The multi-generational cycle of poverty, abuse and violence, is now set to pass onto Lawrence’s 3-year old son, Brandon. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. With proper support, Brandon’s life trajectory can look entirely different. 

Knowledge regarding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) helps us see a way forward for Lawrence, Brandon and others. ACEs are stressful or traumatic experiences that occur in someone’s life before the age of 18. ACEs range from emotional, physical and sexual abuse to growing up with an incarcerated parent to witnessing domestic violence. Without adequate support to buffer its impact, exposure to multiple or frequent ACEs can cause a stress overdose, which is toxic to developing brains and bodies. When that happens, the brain can become stuck in an endless “fight, flight or freeze” survival mode, which shuts down the thinking part of the brain making it virtually impossible to relate, learn or reason with others. According to the Illinois ACEs Response Collaborative, ACEs are the root cause of many of our most pressing health and social challenges from illness to community violence. 

Fortunately, the science is also teaching us how to prevent or mitigate these challenges. Research shows that the damaging, long-term effects of toxic stress can be prevented or mitigated through the buffering support of a relationship with at least one stable, nurturing and caring adult.  

Ideally, this supportive relationship occurs with the child’s own parent. However, the reality is that, like Brandon, many children have parents or caregivers who are too overwhelmed or otherwise unable to consistently provide that supportive relationship. These children and families began life with the cards stacked against them. They are the most vulnerable; and they, too, deserve the chance to change their life’s trajectory. 

Friends of the Children–Chicago (FOTC) offers this chance. We identify kindergartners facing the greatest risks and pair them with a salaried, professional mentor (a “Friend”) who stays with them for 12.5 years –  no matter what. Friends help the youth develop the necessary skills to cultivate the resilience needed to become contributing members of society. Friends also build relationships with parents, supporting their connection to basic needs and resources, and empowering them to advocate for themselves and their children within public service systems. 

Our evidence-based program has proven results: 83 percent of the youth who complete our program graduate from high school; 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system; and 98 percent avoid teen parenting. The Harvard Business School Association of Oregon return on investment study found that for every $1 invested in Friends of the Children, the community benefits more than $7 in saved social costs.  Helping one child saves the community $900,000.

Early intervention for children experiencing toxic stress is more effective for the child, and less costly for society than waiting to address the more serious and expensive consequences that can occur later in life. Programs that empower the most vulnerable children and support their families, offer these children a real opportunity to thrive – an opportunity that every child deserves.  

— Taal Hasak-Lowy, executive director, Friends of the Children, Chicago 

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