It’s commonplace to learn that persons convicted of criminal acts experienced trauma in childhood. These facts are usually raised in sentencing hearings by criminal defense lawyers trying to help explain, not justify, the criminal act, and to ask the court that help be offered to the convicted criminal to address the demons haunting him. Or, you might think, it’s defense lawyer hogwash attempting to avoid accountability.
As an advocate for brain injured victims, I have written numerous blogs about how an injury to the brain causes changes in behavior. But can trauma in childhood also cause changes or even damage to the brain?
It’s a question I am asked to confront when representing children harmed by instances of sexual assault or physical harm from persons who are in a caretaking role. How can I explain what harm is experienced by these children in a way that a jury can understand?
A very good friend recently suggested I read a book called “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance. It’s a rise from the ashes story of a young man born in Kentucky, raised more by his grandparents than by his drug addicted single mother, who goes on to graduate from Yale Law School where he is Editor of the Law Review, and becomes a successful attorney and author, given his book is a best seller. Despite his outward success, he described struggling daily to overcome his angry, emotional and argumentative reactions in his personal relationships. He came to realize, through his efforts in dealing with these struggles, that his brain had become hard wired to react due to his adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. He cites studies which identify the most common ACEs as follows:
- being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents
- being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you
- feeling that your family didn’t support each other
- having parents who are separated or divorced
- living with an alcoholic or drug abusing parent
- living with someone who is depressed or attempted suicide
- watching a loved one physically abused