How do ACEs and poverty connect and how do we intertwine approaches to address them?

Deputy First Minister, John Swinney MSP, adds his voice to our ACEs and poverty blog series, discussing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), what they mean to the Government and what is being done to make change in Scotland. 

I welcome the increased awareness of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in Scotland. This has brought a sharp focus on the detrimental impacts adversity can have on children’s healthy development, with potentially significant long-term consequences throughout people’s lives.

This increased awareness has also reinforced the central importance of the Government’s long-standing, national approach of Getting it right for every child, which is about families and services working together to address the needs of children and young people, support their wellbeing and improve outcomes. It also reinforces the central element of Scottish Government policy that early intervention is critical to achieving the best outcomes for young people.

Powerful and hard-hitting evidence

The evidence base provided by the ACE surveys is hugely powerful and hard-hitting. It highlights the importance of continuing to strive to get it right for every child and the importance of supporting adults who have been impacted by early life stress and trauma.

Whilst the term ACEs is used and often thought of as referring to 10 specific adversities most commonly investigated in the ACE surveys, the focus of our work in Government is on all types of experience or adversity that impact negatively on children’s healthy development. This is not about being deterministic and saying that ACEs equate with negative outcomes. The large-scale ACE surveys show there are increased risks, but we know that this is not inevitable.

Part of the privilege of being a Government Minister is meeting people with a vast array of life experiences. I’ve heard first hand from many children, young people and adults how they have overcome some of the most challenging early life experiences and shown incredible resilience. A supportive person in the family, at school, in the community or workplace has often been key to this. This is backed by evidence showing that a supportive relationship with a trusted-adult is key to helping individuals overcome early life adversity or trauma.

Inequalities in society

As well as understanding the importance of relationships, it is also crucial that we in Government and wider organisations address the social and economic circumstances in which people live. We know ACEs occur across the whole income spectrum, so these are issues we need to be concerned about across the whole of society. However, we need to pay particular attention to inequalities in society and how these influence the levels of childhood adversity experienced and people’s ability to overcome such experiences.

For example, during her recent visit Dr Nadine Burke Harris highlighted the way that discrimination and inequalities relating to ethnicity can give rise to and/or exacerbate childhood adversity. Organisations, such as Scottish Women’s Aid, have highlighted how the impact of domestic abuse on children operates in a context of societal women's inequality. And blogs in this series, as well as other commentators, have articulated the importance of keeping a central focus on income inequality and poverty when seeking to address ACEs.

As Dr Morag Treanor stated in her blog “adverse childhood experiences and poverty do not necessarily coincide, when they do, the resulting trauma can lead to the most intractable and enduring experiences of poverty.”

Our approaches

This is why I see our mission to reduce child poverty as key to our commitment to tackle ACEs. The Scottish Government wants everyone in Scotland to have the same opportunities to thrive during the early years, school years and beyond.

Our landmark Child Poverty Act is a clear statement of our intent to eradicate child poverty and positions us as leading in the UK on tackling poverty. Our first Delivery Plan - Every Child, Every Chance - sets out the measures we are taking to increase income from work and earning, reduce household costs, and maximise income from social security and benefits in kind. By taking this action to address the key drivers of poverty we can reduce child poverty to the lowest levels in Scotland’s history.

Our education policy recognises the impact that adversity and poverty can have on a child’s capacity to learn and thrive at school. That is why we are investing £750 million through the Attainment Scotland Fund to support those affected, and to close the poverty related attainment gap for our pupils in the most deprived areas. This funding is helping schools to deliver a variety of health and wellbeing interventions - such as, investing in educational psychologists, family support staff and counselling services - to help children deal with emotional or social challenges.

Children and young people tell us that they want to play and spend time with the adults who care for them; they want to feel loved, supported and respected; and they want to live their lives in safe homes, schools and communities. Awareness of children’s rights helps children, young people and adults understand that children have a right to be treated in this way. This is why we have work underway with children, young people and stakeholders to co-design and co-deliver a three-year children’s rights awareness raising programme. Furthermore, we have committed to incorporating the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in domestic law.

Our actions

I welcome this Children 1st blog series on ACEs and poverty, as I strongly believe reducing childhood adversity requires addressing structural inequalities in our society, as well as addressing the specific needs of families and individual children, and continuing to raise societal awareness of children’s rights and the impacts of adversity. There are four key areas of action on ACEs we are currently taking forward across the whole of Government and in partnership with organisations across Scotland:

1. providing inter-generational support to parents, families and children to prevent ACEs occurring in the first place;

2. where ACEs do occur, providing the right support to children at the right time to reduce the negative impacts and help build their resilience;

3. developing trauma-informed workforce and service responses for children and adults; and

4. raising awareness of ACEs across society and supporting action within communities.

The ACEs evidence reinforces to me the crucial importance of our prevention and early intervention agenda. My focus every day is on driving progress towards our vision, set out in our National Performance Framework, that “We grow up loved, safe and respected so that we realise our full potential”.