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Effects of Childhood Trauma on Homeless Focus of UAlbany Study

Contact(s):  Catherine Herman (518) 956-8150

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 17, 2007) -- The effect of childhood neglect and abuse on homeless people in Albany and Petaluma, a Northern California community, is the focus of a University at Albany research study that follows pioneering work by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Heather Larkin, assistant professor of social work at the UAlbany School of Social Welfare, is partnering with the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), the primary homeless services agency in Petaluma, to explore the prevalence of "adverse childhood experiences" (ACE) among homeless people in Petaluma and Albany. The research study, expected to be conducted over the next year, will be among the first studies to apply the ACE research to the homeless population.

The Kaiser and CDC study of 440,000 middle-class individuals showed that traumatic childhood experiences, or ACE -- such events as war and other violence, family dysfunction and sexual abuse -- result in poor physical and emotional health in adulthood. The researchers concluded that they are at the root of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States.

Victims of severe childhood neglect and abuse are more susceptible to disease, addiction, and depression; are less likely to seek preventive or early treatment for their problems; and are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking and unprotected sex.

Since it began nearly 15 years ago as a volunteer effort among community churches, COTS has grown to a professionally-staffed, $2.7 million-a-year homeless services agency that provides assistance to hundreds of people through numerous programs focused on breaking the cycle of homelessness.

"We're working with the most disadvantaged people, so the expectation is that ACEs will be more prevalent and the traumatic effects more pronounced," Larkin said.

She will be using her research to refine a treatment program developed with John Records, COTS executive director. The treatment model, called "Integral Restorative Processes," recognizes the effects of childhood trauma among homeless people and offers a comprehensive, flexible guide to support homeless people in changing their lives and lifestyles.

"Frequently, homeless services are offered in a kind of piecemeal way, and we really need a more comprehensive approach," Larkin said. "It's not enough to provide the basics like food and shelter without helping clients recover from trauma. Without that recovery, people have trouble moving forward."

Records and Larkin said that once people understand how early neglect and abuse has shaped their mental and emotional processes, they can more effectively adopt new behaviors to improve their lives.

"Once society recognizes the important role ACEs play in homelessness, the hope is that stigma will be reduced and appropriate, comprehensive interventions supported," Records said. "Dr. Larkin's research is going to provide crucial information to help us design better programs and provide services that are really going to help."

For additional information, visit The ACE Study.

The University at Albany's broad mission of excellence in undergraduate and graduate education, research and public service engages 17,000 diverse students in nine schools and colleges, and an honors college. For more information about this internationally ranked institution, visit theUniversity at Albany. Visit UAlbany's extensive roster of faculty experts.

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