The Invisible Backpack of Childhood Trauma

By Moran Center Executive Director Patrick Keenan-Devlin

Although the school year has just ended and many students have stashed their backpacks away for the summer, I have been thinking a lot about backpacks and what kids bring to school with them every day. I am not referring to books and school supplies. Rather, I am referring to the emotional challenges, distractions, anxieties, triggers, and mental health issues that many kids in our community carry with them every day as a result of experiencing childhood trauma. Imagine the weight of that on the small shoulders of a child!

Consider these startling statistics from SAMHSA:

  • 26% of children in the U.S. will witness or experience a traumatic event before they turn four.
  • Young children exposed to five or more significant adverse experiences in the first three years of childhood face a 76% likelihood of having one or more delays in their language, emotional, or brain development.
  • Youth in detention have experienced an average of six traumatic experiences before detention.

If we can understand the impact of adverse childhood experiences and visualize the weightiness of living with chronic trauma, perhaps we can shift our thinking from, “Why is this child misbehaving? Why can’t they make better choices?” to thinking, “I wonder what experiences have informed this behavior? How can we create an environment that supports their social-emotional learning and allows them to reset their triggers?” 

The Moran Center staff, along with several board members, recently completed three custom workshops on the topic of providing trauma-informed care. These workshops provided a framework for us to apply to every aspect of our work — from our phone interactions, to our intake processes, to how we present cases in court, to how we counsel children and advise parents, and even to our physical office space. 

Thanks to a generous grant from the Evanston Community Foundation, we were able to tap the expertise of several thought leaders and practitioners in childhood trauma:

John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County:
Marjorie Fujara, Pediatrician and Chair, Division of Child Protective Services

Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Center for Childhood Resilience:
Colleen Cicchetti, Ph.D., Executive Director
Tara Hill, Ph.D., Psychologist
Claire Coyne, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology

Partnership for Resilience:
Thomas Lenz, Coordinator

Pictured to the left is me along with Moran Center Deputy Director Kristen Kennard, Colleen Cicchetti, Tom Lenz, and Tara Hill at our workshop hosted by Creative Spaces.

Read on to learn more about how trauma-informed justice changes everything by improving outcomes for children.