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Vulnerability and resilience: how ACEs can help us to identify and reduce risks in children's lives


27 Feb 2020

Anne Longfield, the children's commissioner for England, calls for a more nuanced approach to using ACEs, particularly at a strategic level, and a renewed focus nationally on the conditions, such as poverty, which make it more likely that children will encounter adverse childhood experiences.

EIF’s review of the evidence on adverse childhood experiences is timely, coming at a moment when ACEs are receiving attention from policymakers and politicians. It is an important time to reflect on what using ACEs can achieve to identify childhood problems and ultimately to improve the lives of children.

Certainly the ACE framework shows how trauma and adversity can affect childhood development. It is particularly welcome that this narrative has become accessible to professionals working with children in settings across the health, education, social and policing sectors.

However, we also need to recognise there are limitations to the framework. ACEs are a helpful tool for making professionals consider how a child’s background may be impacting their behaviour and what specific support they need. But this is not an exact science. As this review shows, children cannot always recount specific experiences – although of course this by itself does not mean that they haven’t experienced significant trauma. Another issue is that poverty is not acknowledged as an ACE, even though the evidence linking poverty to poor adult outcomes is stronger than for some ACEs.

So it’s important that professionals take a nuanced view of ACEs, particularly at a strategic level. We need to appreciate the limitations of the framework as a tool for organising services. At an aggregate level, we will never know each child who has experienced adversity. Nor would knowing this provide any kind of shortcut to helping children. Identifying adverse experiences might be the easy bit: helping children to recover from them is much, much harder.

I want policymakers to think more broadly about the circumstances which give rise to adversity, and the children who are at much greater risk of encountering trauma. It is these risk factors, such as poverty, that I want to see policymakers focus on, very much along the lines of the public health approach that EIF’s report starts to lay out.

In particular, I welcome EIF’s calls for tackling the conditions in which ACEs are more prevalent, and improving the strength of national and local systems for preventing childhood adversity and providing support to the families and children who are the most vulnerable.

This is what my office’s Vulnerability Framework aims to do – to recognise the broad populations of children who are at significant extra risk of encountering adversity, and who have fewer protective factors around them when they do encounter adversity. This is a large population of children: I estimate some 2.3 million in England, about a third of whom are unknown to authorities.

This is really where we need to focus our efforts, on the millions of children whose families – for whatever reason – are struggling to provide the protective factors which children need. Working with these families to reduce the risk of children experiencing trauma, and supporting the families to give children greater resilience when it does occur, should be at the heart of any strategy for tackling the vulnerabilities that can hold back children’s life chances.