Research grants focus on preventing adverse childhood experiences, trauma

A person sitting covering their face with their hands.
A pair of new studies aim to better understand and prevent adverse childhood experiences and trauma through the health care, education and juvenile justice systems. (Getty Images)

VCU faculty from the School of Social Work and the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs are building on previous research with two new studies to better understand and prevent adverse childhood experiences and trauma through the health care, education and juvenile justice systems. 

Sunny Shin, Ph.D., a social work and psychiatry associate professor, is the principal investigator of “Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences and Promoting Child and Family Wellness,” a two-year project funded at $210,000 by Families Forward Virginia, a nonprofit working to prevent child abuse, neglect and poverty.

Sarah Jane Brubaker, Ph.D., a professor of criminal justice and public policy at the Wilder School, and Kellie Carlyle, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the VCU School of Medicineare co-principal investigators for “Disrupting the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline for Girls in Virginia: A Multilevel Intervention.” The study is a continuation of the work of VCU’s Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation, or iCubed, on Disrupting Criminalization in Education. The U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has funded the three-year project at $425,000. 

Shin’s study will look at the impact adverse childhood experiences might have on parenting behaviors and on the health and behavioral outcomes of those parents’ children. The study also will examine whether home-based preventive intervention improves parenting practices and promotes resilience among children at risk of traumatic events and poverty.

“Although [adverse childhood experiences] are hypothesized to pass across generations, few studies have explored the links between parental exposure … and their children’s exposure,” Shin said. “Thus, few intervention targets have been empirically identified, which hinders our efforts to prevent [adverse childhood experiences] and promote child and family wellness.”

Shin’s study seeks to add data to the well-documented body of scholarship on the impact of adverse childhood experiences and the efficacy of trauma-informed prevention services and access to health resources.

He said the project is a “natural next step” from a previous study of his to prevent child maltreatment and fatality among infants in low-income areas in the greater Richmond area.

“Previous research has highlighted the importance of [adverse childhood experiences] in the increase of health risks,” Shin said. “We hope that the current project provides empirically based intervention targets for future … prevention programs and that our home-based early intervention is effective.”

Mylinda S. Moore, director of the Comprehensive Health Investment Project of Virginia, will assist Shin to establish a community research advisory council that will provide support to conduct the new research. Shin’s study also will create a postdoctoral training program in adverse childhood experiences and maternal and child health that provides mentorship and support for postdoctoral scholars to refine their applied research skills and develop their research agenda.

In “Disrupting the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline for Girls in Virginia,” Brubaker and Carlyle’s multidisciplinary project, the researchers seek to “bring an interdisciplinary focus to understanding and preventing the processes of criminalizing students’ behaviors,” Brubaker said.

“[These are] often normal responses to trauma in their lives,” she said, and often put them on a path toward the juvenile justice system and child welfare.

Their project seeks to expand an existing program to meet the specific needs of girls involved in the juvenile justice system, implement the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance’s DO YOU program in state detention and community-based diversion facilities, and improve education and implement trauma-to-prison pipeline training for Department of Juvenile Justice staff in Virginia. The researchers also aim to improve community resources in high-poverty areas.

“We have faculty from sociology, criminal justice, public health, education and social work, all of whom bring particular perspectives and frameworks to addressing this problem,” Brubaker said. “We also partner with a community organization, RISE for Youth, that is focused on limiting the reach of juvenile justice systems and redirecting resources and support to young people and their communities.” 

Danielle Apugo, an assistant professor in the School of Education, and social work assistant professors Jamie Cage, Ph.D., and Nicole Corley, Ph.D., are all co-investigators on the grant. 

“The criminalization of trauma experienced by Black girls contributes to their disproportionate involvement in the juvenile justice system,” Cage said. “Black girls experience trauma at the individual, system and community/structural levels, through interactions with specific school staff, service providers and the culture at large. In order to help reduce Black girls' involvement in the system, we aim to disrupt their experiences with trauma and the ways that such trauma is criminalized.” 

Brubaker said she has only recently been focusing on trauma in her work, and she cited the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study in the mid-1990s as influential in raising awareness among academics and practitioners to trauma and its impact.

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