“Breaking the Cycle/ Mending the Hoop: Adverse Childhood Experiences Among Incarcerated American Indian/ Alaska Native Women in New Mexico”
This study, by Lori De Ravello, Jessica Abeita, and Pam Brown, examines how many Native American women in the American prison systems often have physical, mental, and social issues. The authors connect these issues to negative experiences during their formative years. Issues include neglect, abuse (both physical and sexual), substance abuse, violence in the home, family members experiencing mental illness, incarceration, and/or suicide, etc. For these women, there appears to be a direct relationship between having experienced these situations during childhood, and engaging in high risk behaviors as an adult.
In this qualitative-quantitative study, a 217 question survey was developed and administered to 36 Native American women incarcerated in the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility, and each woman participated on an extensive one on one interview. It was discovered that only one woman did not register on the ACE (adverse childhood experience) scale—all others had experienced physical neglect, dysfunctional family members, violence witnesses/experienced in the home, physical abuse by a family member or loved one, and/or sexual abuse by a family member or loved one. 81% of the women had experienced 2 or more of the ACE issues.
When looking at the correlation between ACE and negative adult issues, the researchers discovered that all women except for one had not only used alcohol, but done so in an abusive way, such as drinking daily, drinking to blackout, and actually 74% were under the influence at the time they were arrested. 84% of the women had used at least one illegal drug. Well over one third had been diagnosed with a mental illness during their lifetime. Almost all had experienced domestic violence. Nearly all of the participants had previous arrests. According to the authors, there have been several studies that have examined the relationship between ACE and mental health disorders among Native American people. The article refers to research by Duran and colleagues in 2004 which studied the prevalence of childhood maltreatment and poor mental health disorder outcomes among Native American women receiving primary care from an IHS hospital in an urban setting in the Southwest; they found that 76% reported some type of childhood abuse or neglect.
Among the most significant outcomes of the study was the discovery that of the women tested, those with high ACE were seven times as likely to attempted suicide. Also these same women were three times more likely to have been arrested on a violent offense.
From a Social Work perspective, this study confirms my belief system, which has influenced my practice. Obviously it shows us the importance of early intervention. Prevention of ACE would be ideal, but for those children who have already been exposed to these issues, it is essential that they receive help and support. Without it, children grow up to be at risk of continuing the trauma cycle. Although funding for programming is limited in the prison system, it is essential to get these women the help they need, with the hopes of helping to break the cycle of violence and trauma in the homes and communities of Native American people. The first quote of the article stated that over 75% of the participants with mental health issues had experienced ACE during childhood. This painful data leads to the question about how much mental illness could be prevented?
As women enter into the prison system, they receive a bio-psycho-social assessment, which clearly identifies ACE; however, the prison system (by design) actually perpetuates the continuation of trauma in the lives of those that are incarcerated.
Ravello, L., Abeita, J., Brown, P. (2008). Breaking the cycle/ mending the hoop: adverse childhood experiences among incarcerated American Indian/ Alaskan Native women in New Mexico. Health Care for Women International, 29, 300-315.