Domestic violence forum addresses impact of trauma, abuse

By Dan Otis Smith | Oct 19, 2016
Photo by: Dan Otis Smith Speakers Steve Rowe, left, and Sue Mackey Andrews, right, answer questions during a Q&A after the forum titled Getting Through to the Other Side: Nurturing and Guiding Children of Domestic Violence.

Rockland — About 65 people attended a forum on nurturing children who have experienced domestic violence Oct. 11 at University College at Rockland.

The event, titled Getting Through to the Other Side: Nurturing and Guiding Children of Domestic Violence, included presentations from Steve Rowe, president and CEO of Maine Community Foundation and a former Maine Attorney General and Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives; and Sue Mackey Andrews, co-founder and co-facilitator of the Maine Resilience Building Network, an educational, training, and outreach organization.

Rowe’s presentation focused on how domestic violence and parental neglect affect brain development in young children and contribute significantly to the likelihood that they, too, will become domestic abusers in adulthood. Rowe discussed the concept of toxic stress — prolonged, elevated stress levels that he said can cause shrinkage of the parts of the brain that contribute to learning, memory, and thinking, while inflaming those parts associated with sadness, fear, and anger.

“Genes provide the blueprint for wiring,” in the brain, Rowe said, “but experiences determine how that wiring occurs.”

Rowe emphasized that the receptivity of young brains means trauma can have a much more dramatic impact on them than on adults. “The impact is really horrendous for all kids, but particularly for infants and toddlers,” Rowe said.

“You can predict this stuff,” Rowe said. He guessed that in his experience, children who have been abused are 10 times more likely to become abusers themselves.

Given the disproportionate amount of learning that takes place in young brains, Rowe mused that pay scales for teachers should be reversed from their customary order, such that the younger the student, the better paid the teacher. He called domestic violence one of several “leakages” from the “human capital pipeline” that are damaging society’s potential.

At the conclusion of Rowe’s presentation, Deborah Meehan, director at University College at Rockland, which administers a Maine State Prison college program, added that 80 percent of incarcerated men have experienced some form of childhood trauma.

Andrews devoted much of her presentation to Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, which were conceptualized as part of a long-term study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization. Andrews defined ACEs as “unhappy, unpleasant, hurtful, horrible experiences from the prenatal period to age 18.” Such experiences might include physical abuse, the incarceration of family members, or emotional neglect. The number of ACEs in a person’s life can be used to provide a score that has been correlated with the risk of problems such as diabetes, smoking, heart disease, and other causes of death, she said.

She said the incidence of childhood poverty in Maine has doubled in the past four years, and attributed part of that rise to the state’s opioid abuse problem. “Our opiate crisis right now is feeding the fuel of early childhood neglect,” she said, noting high numbers of children born to addicted mothers.

“We have shredded the safety net,” Andrews said, referring to a decline in state support for social and public health services.

She expressed exasperation with the notion that people in bad situations had earned their lot with poor choices. “I am so tired of hearing this: people make bad decisions,” she said. She argued that chronic diseases, disabilities, mental health issues, alcoholism and other problems tend to develop not out of poor decision making, but from traumatic life experiences endured years before the onset of problems.

Andrews ended her presentation on a hopeful note, emphasizing the simple virtues of smiling, sociability, and the willingness to help. “It doesn’t take a PhD to be nice,” she said.

She also said children should be held to high expectations, face consistent and fair implementation of rules in school, and receive frequent offers of care and support. “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story,” she said.

Rowe agreed with Andrews’s assessment of Maine’s poverty, addiction, and domestic violence issues, compounded by the lack of a social safety net.

“So many people don’t have hope right now,” he said. “Life is really, really hard for people in the state right now.”

Reporter Dan Otis Smith can be reached at 594-4401 x123 or by email at

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