State should not withdraw safety net as disasters compound childhood trauma, advocates say

New data on adverse childhood experiences can help tailor policy to needs

By: - November 30, 2022 4:30 am

Getty Images

In 2020, more than 1,000 Kentucky children were physically abused, more than 15,000 were neglected and almost 800 were sexually abused. 

Experts say these numbers, which come from a new Kentucky Youth Advocates report on adverse childhood experiences, are only what’s reported. They’re likely worse. 

Adverse childhood experiences, more commonly known as ACEs, refer to traumas or stressors in a person’s life before their 18th birthday. They include, but are not limited to: 

  • Violence, abuse or neglect
  • Witnessing violence
  • Living through a family member’s attempted suicide
  • Substance use problems in the home
  • Mental health problems in the home
  • Parental separation
  • Household member being incarcerated 

ACEs have a far-reaching impact on adulthood, too, as survivors are more likely to have chronic health conditions including cancer, diabetes and heart disease; experience poverty; have pregnancy problems; be involved in sex trafficking; suffer from stress; and some may even go on to perpetuate ACEs, feeding a reciprocating spiral of illness and violence. 

Kentucky ranks high for ACEs — and also ranks high for heart disease, poverty, diabetes and cancer — but the new report breaks the traumas down by region, which grantmakers say will allow for more comprehensive policy to fix the problems statewide. 

“My guess is that as we dig into that data more deeply, we will find out that there’s some unique situations in different regions that simply don’t happen anywhere else, or only happened in a couple of regions,” said Terry Brooks, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Dr. Terry Brooks, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
Terry Brooks, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

“So I think that our hypothesis would be that the more granular the data, the better we’re able to say ‘here’s a common solution for the commonwealth,’” he told the Kentucky Lantern.

The Kentucky data, a year in collection, showed that overall: 

  • 10% of children lived with someone who had a drug or alcohol problem,
  • 10% of children had a parent or guardian in jail,
  • 9% of children lived with someone who had a mental illness,
  • 6% of children witnessed domestic violence,
  • 27% of children lived through a parental divorce,
  • 1,223 children were physically abused in 2020,
  • 15,386 children were neglected in 2020, 
  • 776 children were sexually abused in 2020. 

The numbers were compiled from several sources that track health and trends, including the Kentucky Department for Public Health; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Kentucky Behavioral Risk Factor Survey Data; National Survey of Children’s Health; Department for Community Based Services; U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; and the Vera Institute of Justice.

Brooks said the numbers are likely higher, though, because of delays in reporting and also lack of awareness — as in, someone might not realize something they lived through was an ACE.

For example, in addition to intimate experiences, ACEs can include adverse childhood environments, Brooks said. 

“Kids don’t grow up in silos,” he said. “You can’t separate home and school and health and community.” 

Dr. Shannon Moody, Kentucky Youth Advocates’ chief officer of strategic initiatives, said racism and discrimination, bullying, neighborhood violence, and natural disasters like the tornadoes in West and Western Kentucky and the recent floods in Eastern Kentucky are all among those environmental factors. 

The regions used in this report, in line with the Department for Community Based Services, are:

  • The Lakes: West and Western Kentucky 
  • Two Rivers: parts of Western and Central Kentucky
  • Jefferson: Jefferson County
  • Salt River Trail: counties surrounding Jefferson 
  • Northern Bluegrass: Northern Kentucky and a few neighboring counties
  • Northeastern: Northeastern counties
  • Eastern Mountain: from Pike County to Lee and Owsley 
  • Cumberland: the Cumberland region
  • Southern Bluegrass: Fayette and Madison counties and their neighbors 


Kentucky Department of Community Based Service Regions


No one region was worse off in every category than others. In fact, opposite ends of the state like Eastern Kentucky and Jefferson County had similar statistics, particularly when it comes to mental illness. 

Barry Allen, the president and treasurer of the Gheens Foundation, said the data is clear: “This is not a rural-urban issue. It’s everywhere.” 

That trend tracks nationally, too. National Survey of Children’s Health data showed worse-off states not restricted to one geographical area. Montana ranks high for ACEs, as does Arizona and Louisiana. Those that rank low, too, are scattered: from California to North Carolina to Minnesota.

Sara Hemingway, executive director of the Marilyn and William Young Charitable Foundation in Owensboro, said the similar numbers across Kentucky’s regions show that statewide policy is necessary to address the problem, including better access to healthcare. 

The numbers also provide a roadmap, she said, for advocates, organizations and lawmakers as they seek to improve their communities. 

Advisers for Bloom Kentucky, the coalition of grantmakers that aims to end ACEs in the state, plan to meet before the next legislative session and iron out policy goals for legislators. 

KIDS COUNT finds improvements in child poverty

Shortly after the ACEs report came out, Kentucky Youth Advocates also released its annual Kids Count book, which further explores the well-being of children. 

The 2022 book found that:

  • Child poverty rates improved in 2022 over five years ago in 116 out of 120 counties. However, 19% of Kentucky children still live in poverty, a statistic that is more likely to impact children of color. 
  • Fewer than half — 44% — of kindergarteners started school ready to learn at the start of the last school year. 
  • Fewer than half — 46% — of kids in fourth grade were proficient in reading. 
  • About 1 in 6 — 15.7% — Kentucky babies are born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy. Rates of pregnancy smoking have declined, though, in 103 counties. 
  • 88 counties had an increase in the rates of children in foster care from 2019-2021, compared with 2014-2016. Fewer children reunited with their parents or caregivers. 
  • During 2019-2021, 8,010 youth were incarcerated, an improvement from 2014-2016. 

“Perceptions that youth of color are older than their  actual age, or are more culpable, contribute to young Black children having complaints filed  against them at a higher rate compared to their White peers,” the report states on the incarceration point. “Young children, such as elementary and middle school students, who get in trouble need responses and interventions that address the root causes of their behavior. The juvenile court system in its current state can often be traumatic and negatively impact a child’s development.” 

Goal: ‘Inject ACEs’ into governor’s race 

Brooks and Moody said a big goal for next year is to “inject ACEs right in the middle of the gubernatorial race.” 

“What I’d love: to see them (the candidates) stand beside one another and go, ‘you know, we disagree about almost everything, but when it comes to combating adverse childhood experiences, and adverse childhood environments, we’re together and here’s what we’re going to do,’” Brooks said. 

Dr. Shannon Moody, Kentucky Youth Advocates’ Chief Officer of Strategic Initiatives
Shannon Moody

Moody said while families are recovering from tornadoes and floods in both ends of the state, it will be key for legislators and policymakers to not end any “supportive or safety net services” such as health care and behavioral health. 

“We know that stable housing, stable employment, access to childcare — those are all really key in ensuring a stable home and thriving families,” she said. “So making sure that we are not reducing access is really important.” 

“What more important work is there?” 

Allen said he hopes the regional data will result in region-specific grassroots advocacy across Kentucky, calling it a “Mother Theresa” issue and asked: “How can anybody be against trying to stop childhood abuse?”

Barry Allen
Barry Allen is the President & Treasurer at Gheens Foundation

“What more important work is there,” asked Hemingway, “than giving our youth a healthy start?” 

As grantmakers like Allen continue education campaigns, they see it as not just saving children in the immediate, but setting the state up for a better future. 

There needs to be a citizen base, he said, who do not have a history of child traumas. 

“The future of the commonwealth, the future of the country, the future of the world,” said Allen, “is kind of in the hands of those who are giving children reasons to have hope and a future.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sarah Ladd
Sarah Ladd

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist from West Kentucky who's covered everything from crime to higher education. She spent nearly two years on the metro breaking news desk at The Courier Journal. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since. As the Kentucky Lantern's health reporter, she focuses on mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, children's welfare, COVID-19 and more.