Better Together: The Relationship Between Trauma and Youth Justice

Michelle Kinder (far right), executive director of the Momentous Institute in Dallas, Texas, was a special guest at Stand for Children’s recent discussion on the intersection between trauma and youth justice.Pictured from left to right: ACE Awareness Foundation Board President Adriane Johnson-Williams; Cardell Orrin, director of Stand for Children; ACE Awareness Foundation Executive Director Dr. Renée Wilson-Simmons; Dr. Altha Stewart, director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth; Memphis advocate and student John Chatman; Demetria Frank of the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law; and Dr. Gregory Washington of the University of Memphis Center for the Advancement of Youth Development.

Momentous Institute Executive Director Michelle Kinder, a renowned expert in child mental health, was the featured speaker at a January 8 discussion hosted by Stand for Children, in partnership with the ACE Awareness Foundation, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, and National Civil Rights Museum, exploring the importance of belonging and connectedness.

Held at the National Civil Rights Museum, the session began with a keynote by Kinder, which was followed by a panel discussion and audience Q & A moderated by Adriane Johnson-Williams, special assistant to the president for strategy and planning at LeMoyne-Owen College. Panelists included John Chatman, Brothers Speaking Out for Change Fellow and Project STAND student; Demetria Frank, assistant professor of law, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law; Dr. Altha Stewart, psychiatrist and director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and Dr. Gregory Washington, associate professor, Department of Social Work, University of Memphis, and director of the Center for the Advancement of Youth Development.

Speaking to a packed theater comprised of a diverse audience of advocates, educators, parents, and mental health professionals, Kinder began by recounting a story of a young boy whose horrific experiences of being abused as a toddler threatened nearly every aspect of his mental and emotional health as he got older. Even after his abuser was sentenced to prison, the child still struggled with suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress. “Just because the trauma stops, doesn’t mean a child can easily silence the overactive ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response,” she cautioned. “Once you’ve had to question your safety, your brain won’t easily trust adults or safety again.”

For that child and other young people, having a sense of belonging is key to promoting youth resilience and their overall well-being. But those basic attachments can be difficult to form in the aftermath of trauma — and forming them becomes even more of a challenge when the youth has been involved in the justice system. In a question-and-answer session led by ACE Awareness Foundation Board President Adriane Johnson-Williams, the panelists delved into the ways that Memphis leaders can help teachers and caregivers to promote feelings of safety, attachment, and predictability in children and young people who have been involved with the juvenile justice or child welfare systems.

Panelists from left to right: Dr. Altha Stewart, director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth; featured speaker Michelle Kinder; Memphis advocate and student John Chatman; Demetria Frank of the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law; and Dr. Gregory Washington of the University of Memphis Center for the Advancement of Youth Development.

“If a youth has been detained, they more readily experience that fight or flight phenomena when they leave,” Professor Frank explained. “We understand that the justice system is not a good fit for youth who have experienced trauma.”

Still, remarked Dr. Stewart, there could be a way to promote safety, even for children forced to interact with “unsafe” systems. “I believe strongly in the possibility that if we as advocates can make changes,” she told the audience. “While [the juvenile justice or child welfare system] may not be a safe place for any child, we can create safety for children who come into contact with the system. […] I don’t think it’s impossible and I’m holding on to the hope that we are not out of creative ideas for how to do that for our children.”

Doing so, Dr. Gregory added, involves ensuring that the kinds of supports and services advocates and practitioners can provide are available. “One of the things that we know has protected our children is their being connected to families and protective individuals,” he said. “[For those kids] connection to the juvenile justice system is not the end.” Instead, Dr. Gregory added, children who ultimately do well are those who return to families and communities “ready and prepared to embrace them” with “traditional resources, as well as cultural assets that can help protect children.”

Held at the National Civil Rights Museum, the event was part of Stand for Children’s ongoing Educational Equity Learning Series.

Schools have an important role to play in creating safe communities for children, and much of the night’s discussion explored ways to translate the brain science on ACEs into strategies that educators can actually use in the classroom. ACEAF Director of Education Outreach Frank Jemison recapped the panel’s message to educators in a companion blog post for the Stand for Children website. In it, he explained that with as many as half of Memphians having experienced one or more ACE, supporting schools’ efforts to create conditions to help children overcome toxic stress is more important than ever.

Frank Jemison, director of education outreach at the ACE Awareness Foundation, delivering closing remarks.

“Children can heal from the damaging effects of toxic stress if they have safe, stable, and nurturing environments; supportive relationships with adults; opportunities to build executive function skills; and specialized interventions. […],” stated Jemison. “These conditions should exist in every one of our schools. These trauma-informed schools could be a first line of defense against the widespread effects of traumatic stress and help mitigate the negative impact of adverse childhood experiences.”

Read more here and here.


Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 90th Birthday

Music for Aardvarks Director Joe Murphy and Genius Unlimited Director Ekpe entertained on the main stage at the National Civil Rights Museum celebration in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 90th birthday.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have celebrated his 90th birthday this month. On January 21, foundation staff joined Memphians and others around the country in a day of service and celebration to honor his legacy.

The National Civil Rights Museum in downtown Memphis held a massive celebration on MLK Day, including daylong performances, a Children’s Activity Tent, a Home Depot Arts & Crafts Tent, the Memphis Public Library’s Tech Mobile Van, and a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum. In addition, visitors were able to tour a special exhibit, Without Regard to Race or Color: The Past, Present and Future of One Historically Black College, a photographic history of Morris Brown College. Among the performers on the main stage were UPP alternative therapy partners Joe Murphy, director and head teacher of Music for Aardvarks, and Ekpe, the artistic director of Genius Unlimited.

The ACE Awareness Foundation sponsored a booth in the resource-rich Healthy Community Pavilion, distributing materials about the prevalence and impact of adverse childhood experiences, the work of the foundation, and information on resources and special events available at the Universal Parenting Places.


Talking About Emotions with Sesame Street

Expressing emotions was the big topic at this month’s Talk & Tea with Mom event at the Universal Parenting Place at Knowledge Quest. The group enjoyed a morning of fun discussion and activities using resources provided by Sesame Street in Communities.

This month, as part of the foundation’s ongoing partnership with Sesame Street in Communities, the Universal Parenting Places (UPPs) each hosted a parent/child workshop focused on emotional and social development. The UPPs at Christ Community Health Services, Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women, and Knowledge Quest used the familiar characters and rich resources provided by Sesame Street to hold interactive discussions with parents, grandparents, and other caregivers on how children experience feelings, how to help them express their emotions in healthy ways, and how to provide support to their kids — whether they’re toddlers or teens.

Helping young children to understand and express their emotions is an important step toward building empathy; teaching toddlers about emotions gives them the tools to overcome challenges, communicate their needs, and understand others. As children get older and feelings get more complex, the ability to accurately label their emotions can help them to communicate in a positive way to parents, family, and friends. While the workshops were designed to help parents have more positive interactions with their children, participants were also encouraged to pay attention to how they express their own feelings. As UPP Knowledge Quest Site Director Tera Brownlee explained during the site’s Tea and Talk with Mom on January 18, “We [parents] have to be emotionally educated and we have to know how to express our feelings in words. We can’t expect it from our children if we don’t know how to do it ourselves. We’re their first models.”

Parents were also invited to attend a special breakfast and learning session this month at the Universal Parenting Place at Perea Preschool to get answers to basic questions about autism. Using the Sesame Street in Communities Autism Toolkit, the UPP team helped caregivers explore what it means to have a child on the autism spectrum, ways to reduce stigma, and how to provide support with their child’s everyday routines. The attendees also began planning discussion topics and support group events to be held during Autism Awareness Month in April.


ACEs In The News

Photo of Tara Seay courtesy of Commercial Appeal.

Memphis is the nation’s second-poorest large metro area, and it also tops the nation’s large cities when it comes to evictions. That means many Memphis children are dealing with the trauma, instability, and stigma of losing their home. Commercial Appeal columnist Tonyaa Weatherbee explored that stigma this month in a piece titled “Memphis’ kids can’t thrive while their clothes are being put out on the curb.” The story includes interviews with Tara Seay, director of the Universal Parenting Place at Christ Community Health Services in Raleigh, and Cardell Orrin, director of Stand for Children Memphis. Read more here.


The Universal Parenting Places are designed for parents who seek information and intervention at the earliest signs of concern. But beyond intervention, the UPPs hold resources, respite, and times for celebration — like the class led by Ballet Memphis recently for children and caregivers at the UPP at Perea Preschool. Watch this video, created by High Ground News during a visit to the UPP’s Tea and Tutus class as part of its series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education. Read more here.


Photo courtesy of The Daily Memphian.

The South Memphis Glide Rides began in 2017 with just a handful of people interested in learning how to use bikes for their daily transportation. By last fall it, had grown into a weekly event attended by more than 40 teens and adults on Saturday mornings — and a fun way to explore the city’s history. This Daily Memphian piece includes voices from the organizers and community activists responsible for the Glide Rides’ growth, including Cherrese Holmes, a parent leader at the Universal Parenting Place at Knowledge Quest. Read more here.


Photo courtesy of Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris.

The Associated Press reported this month that California Governor Gavin Newsom would appoint ACEs expert Dr. Nadine Burke Harris as the state’s first-ever surgeon general. A national leader in pediatric medicine, Dr. Burke Harris authored The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, a book about ACEs science and how she integrated it into her pediatric practice and her life. Her TED Talk, “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime,” has nearly 5 million views. The Associated Press reported that Dr. Burke Harris plans to urge policymakers at every level of government and leaders across the state to consider the social determinants of health, especially for children. Her work will focus on combating the root causes of serious health conditions — like ACEs and toxic stress — and using her platform to reach young families across the state. Read more here. 


Mark Your Calendars

  • The Universal Parenting Places are offering free workshops and support groups throughout February! Visit the UPP Facebook page for a calendar of events happening at the Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women, Christ Community Health Services, and Knowledge Quest locations.
  • Legacy of Legends Community Development Corporation and AIM to Be Coaching will host introductory ACEs training on February 9 and February 23 in Shelby County. A Trauma-Informed City “ACEs Summit” will introduce basic concepts in ACEs research, along with an overview of the ACEs-related poor social, emotional and physical health outcomes. Details are available online.
  • Building Strong Brains Tennessee has posted an online announcement of funds for the FY20 Innovation Grants. The announcement, along with the required budget template and face sheet, can be found at The deadline for submitting the letter of intent to apply is February 14 and the application deadline is March 15.
  • The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth will host its annual Children’s Advocacy Days on March 12-13. The event is meant to spotlight children’s issues and equip child advocates with information and skills to help them speak out on behalf of the state’s children. For more information, visit

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