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Park Rapids hosts first-ever ACEs Summit

An Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Summit was held Wednesday at the Park Rapids Area High School. ACEs are stressful or traumatic events that are strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems throughou...

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Jim Sporleder shared key elements of how his community and school in Washington state integrated trauma-responsive concepts to transform the lives of students. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

An Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Summit was held Wednesday at the Park Rapids Area High School.

ACEs are stressful or traumatic events that are strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems throughout a person's lifespan, including those associated with substance misuse and violence.

An ACTION Park Rapids Area committee coordinated the community event in an effort to bring more education and awareness.

The day-long summit included presentations from national, regional and local experts.

Keynote speaker was Jim Sporleder, who retired in 2014 as principal of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Wash. Under Sporleder's leadership, Lincoln High School became a trauma-informed school, gaining national attention and spearheading a nationwide movement due to a dramatic drop in school suspensions, increased graduation rates and the number of students going on to post-secondary education. These dramatic changes were captured in the film "Paper Tigers" and its sequel "Resilience." Both documentaries are by filmmaker James Redford.

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The key is addressing ACEs through a family, school and community partnership.

"When you come at it from a community perspective, we come out of the silos and we come together. And we can accomplish a lot when we're working together," Sporleder said.

There's a lot of confusion about what it means to be a trauma-informed community, he said. It does not mean there are no consequences for poor choices.

"It doesn't let kids of the hook. If we aren't holding kids accountable, we're failing them," he explained. Rather, it's a shift from punishment to discipline, which means to teach.

Toxic stress in a child's life that is continuous and prolonged causes pain.

"We need a mindset on how we approach our kids so we don't miss the pain because when we know there's pain, we can help these kids," he said.

Instead of "reacting and telling," adults should "ask and respond." Questions like, "What's going on?," "What caused that?" Responses like, "I'm sorry" or "I didn't know that."

"That's where the relationship begins," he said.

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Kids with "survival brains" cannot physiologically take in new knowledge or problem-solve, Sporleder explained. But there's compelling research that one caring adult can impact a life path, he said.

"They have to know unconditional love. You have to teach it. You have to show it. These kids need it. They don't know what it is," Sporleder said. "You can't reach 100 percent, but we can choose to love them 100 percent."

After talking with community leaders, Sporleder said he was inspired by Park Rapids efforts.

"You're kind of blazing a trail in many areas," he told the audience. "The common goal is to bring hope and healing to the community."

ACEs and the judicial system

Sixth District Judge Shaun Floerke (St. Louis County) spoke about ACEs and their impact within the judicial system.

Americans take 80 percent of the world's pain medication, he said. The U.S. also has the highest incarceration rate.

"We used to punish relapse," he said, recalling a woman in her 50s who was raped as a little girl by her stepfather, a sheriff's deputy, while he was in uniform.

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"She had been using alcohol and substances for 40 some years to try to cover that and to deal with how her body shuts down," he said. "When you're 9, you can't run and you can't fight. Her body had learned how to protect itself by shutting down. I can yell at her. I can throw her jail. But how realistic and fair is that?"

A better strategy is "compassionate presence," Floerke said, now in his 14th year as a judge. People relapse often, but he tells them, "I have no rocks to throw at you."

"Behaviors" are often life-saving responses to trauma or "maps to safety," Floerke said. Healing occurs when there are people of alliance, people of compassionate presence.

"We get healthy when we get connected with quality people, he explained.

Drug treatment courts, for example, combine the efforts of the court with mental health providers.

A neuroscientist has found that authentic social connection has a profound effect on mental and physical health, Floerke said.

"You see people come alive when they find a human connection," he said. "Most of the people I deal with grew up in hell. I see people thriving, rebuilding family, hope, meaning, contribution all the time. It takes time."

Health impact

Dr. Heather Bell from CHI St. Gabriel's in Little Falls discussed both her medical and personal experiences with ACEs. She's been a family physician for 10 years.

Bell said she has an ACE score of 6, which makes her 4,600 percent more likely of becoming a drug user. Fortunately, she said, Bell had a caring adult while she was growing up: her grandfather. "He saved my life," she said. "Everyone needs just one person to always be there for them." It can be a teacher, friend, grandparent, coach.

One in eight people have more than one ACE. Those with scores higher than four have a greater chance of having COPD, Hepatitis C, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, anxiety, alcoholism and a suicide attempt.

A person's genetic makeup can be altered by ACEs and passed on to the next generation, Bell continued. It's called "biological embedding."

Toxic stress affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, limiting reasoning. ACEs also affect the whole body - the liver, digestion, pancreas, heart.

To address the growing opioid addiction in Little Falls, Bell and fellow staff cut opioid prescriptions in their pharmacies in half - from 100,000 to 50,000 per month.

Almost 100 patients are on Suboxone. According to a St. Paul Pioneer Press article about their efforts, "The drug comes in a pill that's taken daily, and it addresses addicts' cravings for opioids and suppresses the euphoric feeling if they try to get high. Suboxone has helped the doctors' patients avoid relapse and overdoses."

Bell, along with Dr. Kurt Devine who is a Park Rapids High School graduate, have launched the first Minnesota ECHO program, short for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes, to help smaller clinics around the state begin to replicate some of their success. It is a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health. ECHO was started at the University of New Mexico and is a mentoring effort to help doctors in rural areas learn about new treatments for stubborn diseases.

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Sixth District Judge Shaun Floerke (St. Louis County) shared how his understanding of ACEs altered his approach in the courtroom. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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